Playlists

Black History Month – Composers

October is Black History Month, and so it seems fitting that my playlist this month exclusively features Black Composers. The music of Black Composers has traditionally been given very little, if any, attention and their music has been largely ignored for many years. I did a music degree in the 1990s that was fairly academic, and had not heard of many of the composers mentioned here during my studies, other than twentieth century composers. Happily, things are starting to change, but this is exactly why we need Black History Month to shine a spotlight on the work of these great musicians, so more people can listen to and love their music.

Some of the composers on this playlist you will have heard of; some pieces have featured on previous playlists; and some composers you may not have heard from before. It is always good to discover music that is new to you and to see if a composer’s works are ones you or your children enjoy or are inspired by. So sit back, relax and have a listen to this whistle stop tour of music through the ages.

Prior to the Classical period in music history I have not found information about Black composers working on music of the western tradition.

I have put together a Spotify playlist featuring most of the works mentioned below. Sadly I could not find all of the works I mention here in this post on Spotify. However, if you would like to listen to most of these works all together, you will find my playlist at the end of this post, or you could simply access it with this link.

Classical Music

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a French composer, amazing violinist, conductor of the main Symphony Orchestra in Paris and a famous champion fencer! In fact when he first performed as a violinist, the audience were surprised that the famous fencer was such a good musician. A few pieces of Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music:

Romantic Music

George Bridgetower (1788-1860)

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was a British composer of African heritage born in 1788. He was a virtuoso violinist whose performance impressed Beethoven so much that he dedicated his Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower. Sadly most of his compositions were lost, and he was mostly remembered as a violinist, largely due to the dedication by Beethoven.

Francis Johnson (1792-1844)

Francis Johnson was the first African-American composer whose compositions were printed as sheet music, he was also the first African-American composer to give public concerts in the United States and to take part in racially integrated concerts there.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912)

Born in 1875 in London, Coleridge-Taylor, named after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a composer and prominent conductor in the early 1900s. Despite being a successful conductor, Coleridge-Taylor struggled financially and so he sold the rights to what became his most successful work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a small sum to make some immediate money. He learned from this experience not to give up the rights to his creative endeavours.

Early 20th Century

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Scott Joplin was an American composer and pianist who was known as the “King of Ragtime”. One of his first pieces became ragtime’s most influential hit, the Maple Leaf Rag. Joplin’s compositional style, and his use of harmony and rhythm were hugely influential on composers who followed him, and you can hear echoes of these harmonic and rhythmic ideas in music composed today.

Florence Price (1887-1953)

The first African-American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer, and the first to have one of her works performed by a major orchestra, Price was also a pianist, organist and music teacher. Price studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and became Head of Music at what is now Clark Atlanta University. In the late 1920s, following a number of racially motivated incidents in Atlanta, Price moved with her family to Chicago and a number of her works for orchestra were performed by the Chicago Women’s Symphony and the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago amongst other ensembles.

Late 20th Century

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Edward Kennedy Ellington, known as Duke Ellington, was an American composer, pianist and jazz artist, leading his own Jazz Orchestra which became famous through their appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Duke Ellington was one of the most significant jazz composers, creating the distinctive Big Band style of performing. Ellington called this “American music”. He was a prolific composer of both jazz songs, and instrumental, more “classical” works.

Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972)

Margaret Bonds was an American composer, pianist, arranger and teacher, who was one of the first Black composers and performers to gain recognition there. She studied under Florence Price, amongst others and she was one of a few Black students at Northwestern University, where her experience was marred by the hostile and racist environment she found herself in. She moved to New York after graduation to attend the very prestigious Julliard School of Music. Margaret Bonds is best known for her arrangements of African-American spirituals.

George Walker (1922 – 2018)

George Theophilus Walker was the first African-American composers to win the Pullitzer Prize for Music in 1996. George Walker’s music is influenced by many different musical styles including “classical” music, folk songs, jazz, church hymns. He did not want to confine himself to one particular style of composition and so he uses many different musical styles within his compositions.

Miles Davis (1926-1991)

Miles Davis is probably known to you as a trumpeter, but he was also a composer. He was born in Illinois, America, into a musical family as his mother was a violinist and music teacher. Having spent much of his younger years performing at school and home, and going on to play in bands in clubs in St Louis and New York. Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz albums of all time, and he is one of the most influential and respected jazz musicians, influencing many, many musicians who came after him.

Nina Simone (1933-2003)

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was an American singer songwriter, musician and civil rights activist. A brilliant pianist with dreams of being a concert pianist as a child, she changed her name to Nina Simone when she started to play in nightclubs in Atlanta, so her family would not know that she was playing in cocktail bars, playing “the devil’s music”. Playing in the clubs, she was told that she would have to sing as well as play piano, starting her career as a singer. For many years Simone performed her most popular music only to help her fund her classical music studies, she was rather indifferent to her recording contract. She had a change of record distributors in 1964 and this gave her the opportunity to change the content of her songs to be much more focussed on the civil rights movement. Nina Simone became more and more involved in activism, and so she wrote and released less music.

Composing and performing today

Eleanor Alberga (1949 – present)

Born in Jamaica, Alberga started performing and composing at a very early age. She studied music at the Jamaican School of Music and moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music after winning the biennial West Indian Associated Board Scholarship. Alberga initially worked as a concert pianist after graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, but stopped performing in 2001 to concentrate on composing. Her music draws on her Jamaican background with its colour and cross-rhythm. Alberga uses influences from jazz music, tonal harmony and repeated rhythm patterns.

Errollyn Wallen (1958 – present)

Errollyn Wallen was born in Belize but moved to London with her family when she was 2 years old. She was brought up largely by her uncle and aunt after her parents moved to New York. Wallen started out training as a dancer, but after going to study a the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she decided to become a composer, returning to the UK. She studied composition at Goldsmiths’ College, Kings College, London and later at King’s College, Cambridge. Wallen was the first Black female composer whose work was performed at the BBC Proms in 1996.

Concerto starts approx 16 mins into recording

YolanDa Brown (1982 – present)

Yolanda Brown was born in Essex, UK. Brown initially studied at business school, and she gained Masters degrees in business and in social research and studied management science at doctorate level before deciding to pursue a musical career. Yolanda Brown was the first person to win the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) award for Best Jazz Act twice. Brown mixes jazz, reggae and soul music in her work.

Parents of young children will know her best from her CBeebies programme Band Jam, which we love in this house. In fact before the pandemic hit we had bought tickets for her Band Jam show near us. If you haven’t already discovered Band Jam, then go and find it on CBeebies, it’s a great, fun show full of music to make your children get up and dance, and Yolanda Brown teaches your children about different instruments and musical styles inviting guest musicians onto the show.

The first two clips I have linked to below are from the brilliant Band Jam, and the final piece is one of Brown’s compositions.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson (1986 – present)

Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a cellist, composer and singer-songwriter. She began playing piano at a very early age, and took up cello at 13. She studied music at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Drama and later studied for her Masters degree in music at the Manhatten School of Music. Witter-Johnson fuses classical and pop in her music, singing and playing cello. She has described hr song writing style as “a bit of soul, hip-hop and reggae”.

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Spotify Playlist

Playlists

An Introduction to Late Romantic Music – a Playlist

What is Romantic music? Is it all hearts and flowers? Love songs? Music only to be played at Valentine’s Day or at weddings?

No, in music history, the late Romantic period refers to music written between approximately 1900 and probably around 1930. This period in music history includes a movement known as Impressionism. Much like the Impressionist moment in art history, composers at this time created a particular atmosphere, or mood or told a particular story. However, where Impressionist artists used the idea of light and colour to create an “impression” of their subject matter rather than necessarily an exact replica of it (I am no art historian, so please don’t rely on my description of art history movements!), composers of this time used sound, harmonies, different scales, or the orchestration of their music to create the impression of the mood, atmosphere or story they chose. Orchestration broadly means which instruments they chose to compose for and how they chose the different instruments of the orchestra to play different themes or harmonies in the music.

You can have a look at my suggested Introduction to Classical Music playlist and also my Introduction to Early Romantic Music for more information on these earlier period in music history.

In earlier periods we generally have a couple of composers who are most famous, but in the Romantic period many composers from all over the world found fame for their composition and their fame continues to this day. So I had to split this period of music into two separate playlists; my earlier post covered composers writing between around 1830 and 1900 and this one covering music written around 1900 to 1930. My aim here is to give you some examples of music to listen to from the most famous composers of this period with your children. I have sought out music that I think would be most appealing to children, but with such a busy period inevitably there will be loads of music and composers I have left out. This is just a playlist to wet your whistle really, and if you would be interested in me doing some playlists for particular composers to give you more information about them and their lives and music, let me know and I can plan that into future blog posts. I will be writing about other periods in music history in future weeks and months.

For now, here are some lovely pieces of music from some of the leading late Romantic/Impressionist composers. You can listen to these pieces of music by following the YouTube links in the post below, or by listening to them all together, perhaps over dinner, while doing something else like painting with your children, or as background music while they play. For the majority of the works below, a different artist or group will be performing the piece than the one listed here, and I have tried to include the whole work. Do not feel obliged to listen to the whole work either, it is just there for you if you would like to listen!

My Spotify playlist with this Introduction to Late Romantic Music can be accessed here, or at the end of this post.

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer who was a member of a group of composers known as The Five. The Five worked together to create a nationalistic, Russian style of music in the mid to late 1800s. He often used fairy-tales and folk legends as the inspiration for his music. One of my favourite pieces from this composer is a piece that perfectly captures the way a bumblebee flits and flies about trying to find pollen.

Sir Edward William Elgar

Elgar is a British composer, a lot of whose music has become part of the established repertoire of concert halls across the country, with his Pomp and Circumstance Marches being a part of the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall every year. Whilst he is considered as a very English composer, his musical influences were actually very European. Elgar was one of the first composers to take the invention of the Gramophone seriously, conducting a series of recordings of his works.

Frederick Theodore Albert Delius

Frederick Delius, born Fritz Delius, was born in Bradford, England into a family of merchants. His family encouraged him to enter the family business and as part of this encouragement he was sent to manage an orange plantation in Florida in the USA. This did not last long. However, it was long enough for Delius to have been influenced by the musical style of African-American music. This influence, along with the influence of his contemporary composers, can be heard in his music especially his early compositions.

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy was a French composer who was known as the first Impressionist composer, a title that Debussy himself very much rejected. Debussy was a talented musician from an early age. So much so that he won a place at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 10. Debussy’s music was, in many ways, a reaction to and against the classical, Germanic style of music of Classical period composers and earlier Romantic composers like Wagner.

Bedrich Smetana

Bedrich Smetana was a Czech composer, who has been referred to as the Father of Czech music. He had a number of difficulties in his life, however, and by the end of his life he was completely deaf, and had mental health difficulties for which he was placed into an asylum. Although the Father of Czech music, Smetana is probably not the best known Czech composer (that title probably belongs to Dvorak whose music will feature in a later playlist).

Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Ralph Vaughan-Williams was an English composer born into a wealthy family. He strongly felt that music could and should be available to anyone. He wrote many pieces of music for amateur and student performers.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Born in 1875 in London, Coleridge-Taylor, named after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a composer and prominent conductor in the early 1900s. Despite being a successful conductor, Coleridge-Taylor struggled financially and so he sold the rights to what became his most successful work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a small sum to make some immediate money. He learned from this experience not to give up the rights to his creative endeavours.

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer born into a musical family which inspired him to start playing piano at the age of 4. He was very influenced by his contemporaries like Mussorsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. After the Russian Revolution Rachmaninoff’s family relocated to America, settling in New York in 1918 where he remained until his death in 1943. Rachmaninoff is perhaps best known for composing beautiful and brilliant, but very difficult works for piano and orchestra.

Gustav Theodore Holst

Gustav Holst was an English composer and teacher. He was a pioneer of music education for girls and composed many pieces for the students St Paul’s Girl’s School where he taught from 1905 to 1934. I have given you one of the movements from The Planets Suite and St Paul’s Suite to listen to. See if you can spot the now famous tunes contained within them. As a hint for the St Paul’s Suite, as the whole of that piece is linked to below, the tune you are looking for is in the finale, Dargason.

Maurice Ravel

Ravel was a French composer who was, like his contemporary Debussy associated with the Impressionist movement in music history; although he, like Debussy again, did not like this association. Ravel was not as prolific a composer as many of the others in these playlists. He worked very slowly, and was as involved with orchestrating (arranging the music that was written for, say, piano for the orchestra) other composers’ works as writing his own. He was quite heavily involved in recording as a way to bring his music to a wider audience. He took part in several recording sessions and supervised some other recording sessions of his own works.

Scott Joplin

I thought hard about whether to include Scott Joplin in this playlist because his music does not fit the sound that I would associate with Romantic or Impressionist music – it would not, really, as he composed ragtime music – but he was composing at the same time as the composers above and so I decided that he should be included in this playlist. Joplin was an American composer and pianist who was known as the “King of Ragtime”. In fact, one of his first pieces became ragtime’s most influential hit.

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Spotify Playlist

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: The Story Orchestra – Swan Lake

This month’s Music Book Review is another in The Story Orchestra series, this time Swan Lake using the music from the ballet by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. The book is illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle.

This book, with its gorgeous illustrations, tells the story of the ballet Swan Lake. There is a Prince, Siegfried, who starts the tale at his 21st birthday party where he is told that he must find himself a wife and take on his role of looking after the kingdom. Siegfried does not want to do this, so he runs off from his party. He meets and falls in love with a Princess who has been cursed by an evil sorceror to appear as a swan during the day and only at night can she take on her human form. The evil sorceror tries to trick Siegfried by getting his daughter to pose as the Swan Princess so that his curse cannot be lifted (of course the curse can only be lifted when the Swan Princess Odette finds true love). Will the curse be lifted, and will Odette spend the rest of her days as a swan? Well, you will have to read the book to find out if you don’t already know.

This is a sound book, so throughout the book there are musical notation symbols which, when pressed, play excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

At the end of the story, the book gives you a glossary defining some of the terms used that your children may not be familiar with, such as “ballet”, “motif” and “scoring”. There is also a very short biography for the composer along with a very brief introduction to the ballet itself and how it is usually performed.

Finally, you can hear all of the different excerpts from the ballet in one place on the final page of the book. For each excerpt, there is a short description of the music as well as information about where in the ballet you can find this particular excerpt.

I love these books. I have a couple of them now, this one and The Nutcracker, which I will probably review around Christmas time) and they are an absolutely excellent introduction to the ballet and the wonderful music of those ballets.

At the time of writing The Story Orchestra: Swan Lake was available on Amazon priced at £11.45

Playlists

An Introduction to Early Romantic Music – a Playlist

What Is Romantic Music?

What do we mean when we talk about Romantic Music? Is it music that is full of hearts and flowers? Love songs? Music only to be played at Valentine’s Day or at weddings?

In music history, the Romantic period refers to music written between approximately 1830 and the early 1900s. Composers of this time became more expressive writing music that was full of drama, finding their inspiration often in books or paintings. They used their music to write about their emotions, not just love, but grief and tragedy as well.

In earlier periods we generally have a couple of composers who are most famous, but in the Romantic period many composers from all over the world found fame for their composition. My aim here is to give you some examples of music to listen to from the most famous composers of the first part of this rich musical period with your children. There are so many to choose from that I have split this period into two separate playlists, the Early Romantic and the Late Romantic/Impressionist periods. This first post covers Early Romantic composers. I have sought out music that I think would be most appealing to children, but with such a busy period inevitably there will be loads of music and composers I have left out. This is just a playlist to wet your whistle really, and if you would be interested in me doing some playlists for particular composers to give you more information about them and their lives and music, let me know and I can plan that into future blog posts.

You can have a look at my suggested Introduction to Classical Music playlist for more information on this earlier period in music history.

For now, here are some lovely pieces of music from some of the leading early Romantic composers. You can listen to these pieces of music by following the YouTube links in the post below, or by listening to them all together, perhaps over dinner, while doing something else like painting with your children, or as background music while they play. For the majority of the works below, a different artist or group will be performing the piece than the one listed here, and I have tried to include the whole work. Do not feel obliged to listen to the whole work either, it is just there for you if you would like to listen! Finally, unfortunately I could not find George Bridgetower’s Henry, A Ballad on Spotify when putting this playlist together. If you happen to spot it (ha!), please let me know and I can add it in.

My Spotify playlist with this Introduction to Early Romantic Music can be accessed here, or at the end of this post.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer born in 1840. He was the first Russian composer whose music would be well known outside of Russia, and who would influence the music of later composers. The first of these examples is probably the piece of music that you will most likely recognise as it is a staple of Christmas productions schedules in venues all over the country. It also featured in the wonderful Disney Fantasia that I remember from my childhood and that I have been sharing with my little ones thanks to Disney+.

Nutcracker Suite
1812 Overture
Swan Lake

Willhelm Richard Wagner

Willheim Richard Wagner was a German composer best known for his operas. Especially a set of 4 operas known as the Ring Cycle, which were loosely based on elements of German mythology. You often find opera companies staging the whole of the Ring Cycle, and many audience members like to book tickets for the whole thing on successive days – that can take a very long time as each opera is, in itself, very lengthy! Unlike many other composers Wagner also wrote the libretto (or the words to be set to music) as well as the music.

I am not the biggest opera fan, and have to admit to not being very keen on Wagner in particular (and this is not because of his very questionable political views, but just the music itself does not appeal to me); however, no Romantic period playlist would be complete without a bit of Wagner. The piece I have chosen is the most fun, in my opinion.

Ride of the Valkyries

Johannes Brahms

Another German composer born in 1833. As a virtuoso pianist himself, he would often be the first performer of many of his own works. Brahms’ music may be the most similar, of the composers featured in this playlist, to the music of composers from the Classical period as he liked the form and structure of music from that earlier period. His music sounds very different, however, because the orchestra had grown enormously in size since the Classical period, giving orchestral music a much more full sound.

Hungarian Dance, No 5
Lullaby

Hector Berlioz

Louis-Hector Berlioz was a French composer born in 1803. Berlioz wrote programme music, music that tells a story. And this story is told not just in the lyrics of an opera, say, but in the music itself. So a purely orchestral piece of music can tell a story.

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann was a German composer and pianist. She was regarded, during her lifetime, as one of the foremost pianists, but her composition was rather overshadowed by the work of her more famous husband, Robert Schumann. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a virtuoso pianist, her music for piano is particularly beautiful.

Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Petrovich Mussorsky was a Russian composer born in 1839. He wrote music inspired by Russian history and folklore. Like Berlioz above, he wrote programme music, music where the music itself tells a story. Mussorsky is another composer whose music was featured on the Disney film Fantasia.

Night on Bald Mountain
Pictures at an Exhibition

George Bridgetower

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was a British composer of African heritage born in 1788. He was a virtuoso violinist whose performance impressed Beethoven so much that he dedicated his Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower. Sadly most of his compositions were lost, and he was mostly remembered as a violinist, largely due to the dedication by Beethoven.

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Spotify Playlist

Playlists

An Introduction to Classical Music – Playlist

What Is Classical Music?

This question can be answered in a couple of different ways. When most people talk about classical music as compared to other types, or genres, of music like pop music, or folk music, they are probably talking about instrumental and vocal music composed before the time of pop music, so before around 1950.

In reality there are many different periods of classical music, each period having a different name and representing a different time in music history. Each of these periods have distinct musical styles which are clear to hear once you have been introduced to them. One of those musical periods was named the Classical period (and it is music from this time that musicians are talking about when they discuss Classical music) and it is this period that I would like to focus on today. To try to be as clear as possible I will use the word Classical with a capital C, to refer to the Classical period in music history.

The Classical period ran between approximately 1730 and 1820. Composers of this period included Mozart and Beethoven (although Beethoven was also composing during the Romantic period of music history, so he was something of a cross-over composer) as well as composers like Haydn, Gluck and Salieri (a contemporary of Mozart’s, and famously rumoured to be the cause of Mozart’s death. This is not true, but it does make for great drama in the film Amadeus).

I have given you 3 pieces by each composer apart from Mozart and Beethoven as they are both very prolific composers whose music is absolutely beautiful and will already be highly recognisable to you, to give you and your children a flavour of music from the Classical period in music history. Some of it you and they might love, and some you might not, some you might downright hate. That’s ok. To my mind, the point with music is to find pieces of music you enjoy and get something out of – whether that is finding music to dance around the kitchen to, or music to help you relax and calm you down before bed, and you will find them in every period in music history.

You can listen to these pieces of music by following the YouTube links in the post below, or by listening to them all together, perhaps over dinner, while doing something else like painting with your children, or as background music while they play. For the majority of the works below, a different artist or group will be performing the piece than the one listed here, and I have tried to include the whole work. Sometimes some of the movements may have escaped me, as I seem to be using a very cumbersome method of adding the pieces to my playlist – something I must change, and soon – so please excuse any omissions if you spot them. Do not feel obliged to listen to the whole work either, it is just there for you if you would like to listen! Finally, unfortunately I could not find Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ 5th string quartet on Spotify when putting this playlist together. If you happen to spot it (ha!), please let me know and I can add it in.

My Spotify playlist with this Introduction to Classical Music can be accessed here, or at the end of this post.

Mozart

Mozart is, undoubtedly, the most famous, the most iconic of the Classical period composers. His life story and the story of his music has been written about countless times, and for very good reason. Mozart was an unusual composer, in his day, because while he was a respected mainstream composer, he also wrote music that more ordinary people could listen to, not just music for the Court. So a lot of his music is more light hearted, more fun than many other composer’s of this era. You will have heard some of Mozart’s music, even if you don’t already know it as his, not least because one of his melodies, Ah vous dirai-je, maman, became the melody to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and the ABC song. I have very strong memories of listening to a Roald Dahl story CD in the car as a little girl, and one of the tunes used for the song about the bad guys Boggis, and Bunce and Bean, came from Mozart’s Horn Concerto. Here you have just a flavour of Mozart’s musical work as an introduction:

Beethoven

Beethoven was another giant of this period in music history. In all music history really. Beethoven composed music that fits into the timeline for both the Classical and the Romantic periods (this will be my next playlist blog post, so look out for it in the coming weeks). Beethoven had a very dramatic personal history, and there are loads of books, articles and films dealing with this so I won’t delve into it here. He wrote some absolutely beautiful pieces of music, and here are just 3 that were written in the Classical period that would be great as a starting point to get to know his music:

Haydn

Haydn was an Austrian composer of the Classical period. His work writing many string quartets and symphonies earned him the titles of “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet”. A couple of Haydn’s works to listen to:

Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck was a German composer who is mainly known for his opera compositions. Gluck was so influenced by the fashion for French opera at the time he was writing that he moved to Paris in 1779 where he stayed for a few years before moving back to Vienna where he stayed for the rest of his life. Some of Gluck’s works:

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a French composer, amazing violinist, conductor of the main Symphony Orchestra in Paris and a famous champion fencer! In fact when he first performed as a violinist, the audience were surprised that the famous fencer was such a good musician. A few pieces of Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music:

CPE Bach

CPE Bach, or Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach, was the son of the more famous J S Bach who was a composer from the Baroque period of music history, the subject of a later playlist. CPE Bach was a composer in his own right, however. His brother, Johann Christian or JC Bach, was also a composer based in London, whereas CPE Bach lived in Germany. While his brother was known as “London Bach”, CPE was known as “Berlin Bach”, or later on “Hamburg Bach”. Here are some of the musical works of CPE Bach to introduce your children to his work:

Spotify Playlist

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: Poppy and Mozart

POPPY AND MOZART is a lovely book illustrated by Magali le Huche.

The back cover of the book introduces it by saying :

Poppy loves to play the music of Mozart with his best friend Frannie. Today, the two friends will hear musicians all over the city, because today is the festival of music in Paris!

Poppy and Mozart is a sound book, and there are a number of icons on the book to press, which then play either excerpts from some of the composer Mozart’s works (a speaker icon in a red circle), or a sound effect, like the sound of a bicycle bell (a squiggle in a yellow circle).

The story follows the two friends as they travel around Paris, hearing Mozart’s music wherever they go. Their day culminates in a performance of the opera The Magic Flute, and the famous aria from this opera The Queen of the Night.

The story is a little limited, as many of these sorts of books are. However it is a nice way to introduce the music of one of the great composers within a beautifully illustrated story.

There are some really nice touches to this book. After the story, a few facts about Mozart’s life and music are given to the reader, as is a list of the works that feature in the book together with the artist or ensemble who performed each one. All of the sound effects and musical excerpts are also provided together for your child to explore at the end with the name of each piece of music. Finally, there is the all important on/off switch which is essential in my mind both so that you don’t waste the batteries before you get to actually read it, and so that your children cannot drive you absolutely up the wall playing the one excerpt over and over again. Not that mine would ever do that sort of thing……

The back of the book suggests that this is a book for age 4+ and I would broadly agree with that assessment. My daughter is 3, nearly 4 and she is only just starting to show interest in the book as there is less fantasy or fairytale to it than many of her other books of this nature. She is also only just developing enough strength in her hands to be able to press the icons and get them to actually make any sound herself.

Music games to play at home

Call And Response Games To Play With Your Children

Hello everyone. How are you all doing? I have my two children at home with me and am trying to homeschool them both. My children are 3 and 6. My eldest has lessons set by school (they are mercifully good at telling everyone to only do what they can and that they don’t expect everyone to do all the work set: some days we do it all, some days we barely scrape through 2 classes.) My daughter has activities set by school as she is in preschool 3 days per week. She could be in school given her age. We all got coronavirus over Christmas, with my son getting it at New Year, so we assumed our 3 year old had it too and kept her home. She went to school for 1.5 days after the contagious period was over, and came home with a stomach bug. Then one of her teachers tested positive and the whole year groups had to self-isolate.

This is a rather long winded way to say that life is pretty challenging at the moment, as it is with pretty much everyone, and I am struggling to find any time at all to write on here.

For today I wanted to write a quick blog post about a nice and easy call and response game I played with the children at home yesterday using our drum. This game can be played with any instrument, or even a plastic bowl and wooden spoon.

Call and response games are great for developing:

  • Listening skills
  • Patience
  • Turn taking
  • Imitation skills

They simply involve you playing (or singing) a very short phrase and getting your children to copy you when you have finished. They should play exactly the same phrase back to you.

These games are great for helping your children start to understand rhythm, develop a sense of playing to the beat and, as an added bonus, can help your children with counting skills! Who wouldn’t want to play them?

We started our game with playing just 4 beats and counting them out loud. My 3 year old didn’t always manage to beat the drum on all four beats, but both children played/counted out on the beat.

I started to add in more complicated rhythms for them to copy, and for each round of the game the rhythm became more complicated. You can use any rhythm that comes into your head for this- think about songs you like, tv theme tunes etc and use the main melody to beat the drum to that melody.

My 6 year old managed more complicated rhythms than his younger sister, which is to be expected, but both had fun playing the drum and making lots of noise. They used up a bit of energy as well with this game-always a winner when stuck at home in lockdown!

Playlists

My Favourite Christmas Songs

Ah, Christmas. A season with so many fantastic songs. Most years you can’t escape Christmas music with Wham’s Last Christmas playing in the shops from mid September. This year everything is a bit different, so I am not absolutely sick of hearing these songs yet. So here is a playlist of some of my favourite songs for the festive season for you to enjoy with your little ones. There are so many songs that could be included in this list (I would be appalling on Desert Island Discs, how can you possibly choose so few pieces of music to take with you?) but as this is a family friendly list I have only included songs that you would be comfortable playing in front of the children.

You could sing along, play along with any instruments you have at home, or even using a bowl and wooden spoon, or just enjoy listening. You can listen by clicking on each link below, or by playing them all through from the spotify playlist which I have linked to right at the bottom of this blog post.

If you prefer Christmas Carols, then I have written about my favourite Christmas Carols here, and my next playlist will be all about classical music for Christmas, so come back to see that playlist in the next few days. I’d love to hear what yours and your children’s favourite Christmas songs are, please let me know on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram – hint, I am on there so please come and find me.

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas by Meredith Willson

Have Yourselves A Merry Little Christmas by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine

White Christmas by Irving Berlin

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire) by Robert Wells and Mel Torme

Santa Baby by Joan Javits and Philip Springer

Winter Wonderland by Felix Bernard and Richard Bernhard Smith

We Wish You A Merry Christmas (Traditional)

Santa Claus is Coming to Town by J Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie

Spotify Playlist

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: The 12 Engines of Christmas

It’s 1 December, so I feel it is appropriate for this week’s Music Book Review to be a Christmas book – this one is a version of the song 12 Days of Christmas.

The 12 days of Christmas is a superb song. It is, essentially a memory song. As you will know, if you are familiar with the song, each day your True Love brings you a gift. On the first day you are given a partridge in a pear tree. On the second day you are given another partridge and this time two turtle doves as well. On the third day, three French hens are added to two more turtle doves and another partridge and so on.

It is a good song for children to learn because of its repetitive nature – we learn through repetition, especially as small children – both the words and the melody are repetitive. It is good for young children to learn numbers as well, for obvious reasons.

The book is not a sound book, so it is up to you whether you read the words or sing them. I cannot help myself but sing it every time. The last time we read this book, which was in the middle of June this year – honestly children have no concept of an appropriate time for these things! – my son decided that he was going to sing most of the song , and that I should chime in with “5 holly wreaths”.

The 12 Engines of Christmas, as you can see from the front cover, is a re-writing of the song for fans of Thomas the Tank Engine. We went through quite the train obsession phase when my son was very young and everything was Thomas the Tank Engine based. We have had this book for about 4 years now, and as mentioned above, both children love to have it as their bedtime book no matter the time of the year. It is quite dog-eared now. It is a board book, so stands up well to small people trying to chew it and their general heavy handedness. There are large tabs along the top edge of the book to make it easier for small children to turn the pages by themselves, and each engine has their own page. It starts with the first day of Christmas “what did Thomas see?” (as Engine number 1 on the Island of Sodor, of course Thomas must go first) and works through 11 more engines and what Christmassy items they saw.

It stands up to the test of time as well. We got this during my son’s train obsession phase, but eve though he is now 6 he still enjoys getting the book out, though he now likes to sing along himself rather than just turn the pages or point out the trains.

Playlists

Classical Music For Christmas

I have shared some playlists of my favourite Christmas Carols and Christmas Songs in the last couple of weeks, but for today I thought I would share some rather lovely pieces of classical music on a Christmas theme (I use the term classical to refer to music that is not pop or folk music, not just music from the classical period). These will be really nice works to listen to with your children while you are doing other things like making or writing Christmas cards, or doing a bit of festive baking, or maybe while you are having dinner one evening. Perhaps get out your sleighbells, tambourines or wooden sticks (wooden spoons would work well for this too), to play along with your little ones.

As usual you could play each of the YouTube videos I have included below, or play the whole playlist from my spotify, a link to which is included below.

For now, and once again with no further commentary, here is my playlist of 8 pieces of classical music for Christmas (and I use the term to refer to non-pop or traditional music, rather than music from the Classical period).

A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Christmas Oratorio by J S Bach

The Nutcracker by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony of Carols by Victor Hely-Hutchinson

L’Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz

The Messiah by George Frideric Handel

Christmas Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli

Leroy Anderson Sleigh Ride

Spotify Playlist

Playlists · Themed Music

My Favourite Christmas Carols

I love Christmas. I love everything about it. I love the lights and the decorations. I love the mulled wine. I love to see presents under the tree (although these days if any presents are left under the tree any time before the children are in bed on Christmas Eve, they will get opened no matter who the presents are intended for). There’s Christmas films to watch and an excitable air around the house. I have two small children at home and this will most likely be the first year my youngest really knows what Christmas is rather than just being swept up in my eldest’s excitement; it may also be the last year that my eldest believes in Father Christmas. So despite everything that is going on in the UK, and indeed in the world at the moment, we will still have a really lovely, exciting festive period, albeit a very different and far more homebound experience.

Of course for me as a musician, music is a massive part of the festive period. As a child at school and a music student at University I sang in the choir. Christmas and the Christmas Carol Service at school was the best time of year to be in the school choir. Then as an adult working in music venues, we would hear all of these songs every single day, and every single night, for about 2 weeks straight. And yes, I was slightly sick of them by the end of the festive period, but never for long.

There are so many Christmas carols and songs, and pieces of classical music to listen to at this time of year, but offered below for yours and your little ones’ enjoyment, and with no further commentary, are 10 of my favourite Christmas Carols (my favourite Christmas songs will follow on another day). You can watch them on YouTube as you go through this list, or listen to them using my spotify playlist which you will find at the bottom of the blog post. I hope you enjoy this playlist and I would love to hear what your favourite Christmas Carols are.

Silent Night

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Once in Royal David’s City

Coventry Carol

In the Bleak Midwinter

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

In Dulci Jubilo

Away In A Manger

Carol of the Bells

Spotify Playlist

Instrument spotlight · Ukulele Challenge

Our Ukuleles

As some of you who have been regular readers of this blog will know, I am trying to teach my eldest the basics of playing the ukulele. He has often expressed an interest in learning guitar and this is a good starter instrument to learn the basics with before moving on to something else like a guitar. And for me beginner ukulele is much easier to listen to than beginner recorder!

My decision to try to teach him ukulele was also partly based on my own desire to play the instrument. I had bought a cheap ukulele from Flying Tiger to try it out (I have written more about that ukulele below as it is now my 3 year old’s instrument), and then got a much nicer instrument for my birthday that year. It made such a difference to the sound that I made when playing and so my enjoyment of playing and motivation to practise, that I felt it important to buy my son a proper ukulele rather than give him a toy to play with.

I got him a Makala dolphin soprano ukulele from Amazon. I liked the colour of it (red is my favourite colour) and the fact that the bridge was shaped like a dolphin and I thought that my son would quite like it. It cost me around £30 at the time, and at the time of writing there are other Makala dolphin ukuleles available on Amazon at a cost of £35.99 like this one. It is easy to play, has a nice, warm sound to it, holds its tuning well and is a pleasure to play. I should say that if you do buy a ukulele, you do have to tune it several times when you first get it so that the strings settle, if you like, and that is the same when you change strings.

As I mentioned above I had previously bought a ukulele from Flying Tiger when I first decided I wanted to learn to play ukulele myself. It cost about £10, and was pretty, so I thought it was worth a try.

This ukulele is made out of plastic and has plastic strings, and the materials it is made out of makes a huge difference to the sound it produces. It is just not as nice or warm a sound, and the strings do not stay in place, so the tuning of the instrument slips all the time. You tune the ukulele and start to play and sometimes the strings move while you are playing, so it just doesn’t sound nice or right. I kept thinking that I was playing the wrong chords when I was not, and I quickly became quite disheartened with playing. This is very much a toy, not a proper instrument.

It does, however, work very well as an instrument for my 3 year old to play. She is very much into music and always singing away to herself and to us, songs she has learned or just made up. Whatever her older brother is doing, she also wants to get involved with herself, but at the moment she doesn’t have the concentration to learn to play like my eldest is doing. It is really good for her, though, to have an instrument I am happy for her to play around with for her to play along with us and feel involved with our lessons and our music making. As a plastic instrument I am not worried about her bashing it on the floor or the furniture, I am not worried if she plays along with it gently or not, and because it was only £10 it doesn’t bother me if she only picks it up for 5 minutes every few weeks. It serves a purpose that way, but will never be good to actually learn how to play ukulele.

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Sensory Scarves

This might not sound like an item that would have a place in a music box, but sensory scarves are a great addition to any musical play you do at home. They are an inexpensive and versatile thing to include in your music box.

What are sensory scarves?

Sensory scarves are brightly coloured, lightweight scarves that can be used in a range of sensory activities, including music. They can be used by children of all ages, including very small babies.

Sensory scarves are a small square of soft, usually see-through chiffon material. They come in many different colours, often very bright colours, which children love. They can be referred to as sensory scarves, dance scarves, juggling scarves when you are looking for them to purchase, and come in multi-packs of, say 12 or 20 scarves. They are generally machine washable, which is great when your baby puts everything in their mouths, but should not go in a tumble dryer. That’s not really a problem though because they dry really quickly. The only thing you have to really watch out for with these scarves is leaving them on the floor because they are very slippy.

How to use Sensory Scarves

We have used these scarves for both musical and non-musical play. I will talk about how we use sensory scarves with our musical play below. In non-musical play we have used them to used them to play hide and seek with – burying the children or toys under a pile of scarves (we have quite a lot of them at home!) and then going to find them. We have played at wrapping things up with the scarves, playing birthdays or Christmas. I have put the scarves inside a Green Toys recycling truck and got the children to pull the scarves out from the different slots in the truck; that was a great game that kept my children busy for at least 5 minutes when they were very small. We have used them to make rainbows. We have used them to hide behind when playing Peekaboo. I am sure there are lots of other games we have played with them, but I can’t think of them right now.

As the children are at school today, I had an able assistant in the form of Giant Peppa Pig.

Musical Play with Sensory Scarves

Sensory scarves are great for musical play. As I mentioned above, they can be used by even the youngest children. They are easy for small hands to grasp hold of and, as they are machine washable, it doesn’t matter if they go in baby’s mouth (although obviously any toy should be played with under close supervision with small children). Scarves are very soft and so you can run them over your little one’s body, they can be put over their heads, they can be thrown in the air etc without worrying that they will hurt anyone. So what musical games have we played with sensory scarves at home?

  • We have held the scarves in our hands (me holding them when the children were babies, and as the children have grown, they have held them scarves themselves), and moved them in time to them music. The scarves can be moved up and down in time to the music, or from one side to the other.
  • Waved the scarves in the air above the children’s heads, or at eye level, or even down on the ground to get them to follow the movement with their eyes or heads. When doing this I tell the children what I am doing, and again I time my movements to coincide with the beat of the music I am playing.
  • Put a song like The Grand Old Duke of York on and used my scarf to illustrate the song – as we sing about the Grand Old Duke’s men going up the hill I wave my scarf up in the air, and when they go back down the hill my scarf moves down towards the ground.
  • When singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes we place the scarves on our heads, shoulders, knees or toes.
  • When singing songs about hiding, or playing peekaboo using a sing-song voice, I have used a scarf to either hide behind myself, or to hide one of the children. Removing the scarf with a flourish is a fabulous, fun and very clear way of playing peekaboo with your little ones. Peekaboo is a great game to make small children laugh, as well as a great way to teach your children about object permanence – that people and things do not disappear if you cannot see them.
  • Singing the rainbow song, and using the scarves to point out the colours.
  • As my children have got older, I have given them a scarf or two, put some music on and got them to just dance around moving the scarf to the music as they see fit.

Here’s an example of musical play with sensory scarves, playing along to Dance of the Knights from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev:

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Sleigh Bells / Jingle Bells

It is coming up towards that time of year when you start to hear sleigh bells in a lot of music. Sleigh bells are definitely a feature of Christmas music, and they make a fantastic Christmas present for children who enjoy music, or whose parents do. I would not buy these as a present for small children who mouth objects, but they can be played by them with extremely close supervision.

What are Sleigh Bells?

Sleigh bells are percussion instruments made by having a sheet of metal bent into a ball shape with ball bearings or a small metal rod inside the ball. Generally several of these balls are attached to something like a wooden stick.

How do you Play Sleigh Bells?

Sleigh bells are incredibly easy to play. You can play them by:

  • holding the sleigh bells in your hand and shaking them. Yep, that is it!
  • holding the sleigh bells in one hand and hitting the palm of your other hand with them.
  • tapping the sleigh bells on your body or on the floor.

Here is a video of the various ways to play sleigh bells.

Shaking the sleigh bells
Shaking the sleigh bells on the beat/to a pulse
Tapping sleigh bells on your hand
Tapping sleigh bells on the floor (this can be loud!)

Sleigh Bells and Small Children

Small children, especially those who mouth objects (chew on them or otherwise put them into their mouths), should never be left unsupervised with sleigh bells. The bells could detach from the wooden stick and could cause a choking hazard.

They are instruments that even a small child can play independently, as long as you are right by their side when they are playing them to stop them putting them in their mouths. The bells make a nice sound and so children really do enjoy playing with them. For us, it was easier to let my son play with the sleigh bells from a younger age than my daughter as he largely stopped mouthing objects from around 2 whereas my daughter has only just stopped putting everything in her mouth at over 3. You know your child best, but in our household the bells have only just gone into the main music box that both children have easy access to. A safer alternative to bells are enclosed mini tambourines, and you can read my blog post featuring these instruments here.

We have a set of bells attached to material that goes around the ankle, and both of my children absolutely love them, running and dancing around with them and making as much noise as they possibly can with them! Once again, while these are great for young children to play with young children shouldn’t play with them unsupervised because the bells here could come off the material as well. With older children, they can dance around with them on to their hearts’ content!

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Playlists

Classical Music for Halloween

Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

I made some suggestions of songs that could feature on a Halloween playlist in a previous blog post, but it is not just pop songs/soundtracks that are appropriate for the spooky season. While we may or may not play these works at our Halloween party I will certainly be playing this music over the half term break while we are doing Halloween crafts and playing Halloween games. The link to the spotify playlist to listen to all of these suggestions together is at the end of this playlist.

Night on a Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorsky arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov

Written originally by the composer Mussorsky when he was a young man, it is the version of this piece that was arranged by his contemporary Rimsky-Korsakov that has become famous and that is included in this playlist.

Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens

Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death is a tone poem (an orchestral work that paints a picture inspired by a work of fiction, poetry, or art) written in 1874. According to legend Death appears each year at midnight on Halloween. Death then calls the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (violin). This piece begins with a harp playing a single note 12 times (midnight) before the orchestra starts playing its dances. This is a piece that always sounds rather mischievous to me.

O Fortuna from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff

The Carmina Burana are a set of over 200 poems and dramatic texts from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. In the 20th century based on 24 of the poems. They discuss issues such as the fickleness of fortune and wealth, and the perils of greed and gluttony to name a few of the themes of this work. O Fortuna begins and ends the work. I love Carmina Burana, and one of my favourite memories of this piece is playing percussion for a performance in Sheffield Cathedral in my final year at University. It was such a fun piece to play!

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J S Bach

One of the most famous pieces of organ music, composed by Bach. The piece starts with the Toccata section, which is composed as a virtuosic piece of music – or as a piece of music designed to show off the skill of the performer. The fugue follows. A fugue is a piece of music that has two themes that follow one another, almost like they are chasing each other. This is a very dramatic piece of music, the loud opening on the organ lending it a rather spooky atmosphere.

In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg

Composed originally to accompany Henrick Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, In the Hall of the Mountain King later formed part of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. It is a dreamlike, some would say nightmarish, fantasy piece of music from a story about trolls, goblins and gnomes. What could fit Halloween better than that?

Totentanz by Franz Liszt

Translated as Dance of Death, this is an obvious inclusion in a playlist of music to listen to at Halloween.

Third Movement of Piano Sonata no 2 in B flat Minor by Frederick Chopin

The composer Chopin wrote many, many pieces of music for the piano. He is probably mainly known as a composer of beautiful, romantic pieces of music. The second movement (a sonata is written in a number of movements, here 4 movements) is a funeral march and has been performed at many funerals, including Chopin’s own funeral.

War Requiem by Britten

I could have chosen almost any Requiem to include in this playlist. A Requiem Mass is part of a catholic service, a mass for the dead. There are many beautiful, dramatic, wonderful Requiem Masses to listen to, but I am including this one because it has as its subject matter the horrors of war as well. This is the Libera Me. The text is Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna which means Liberate me, master, from eternal death.

Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass by Verdi

The Dies Irae appears in every Requiem Mass, and translates as the Day of Wrath. This is such a dramatic piece of music. Another that always comes to mind for me from a performance in a cathedral. This time from my school days as a flautist, but I can’t remember where I was. I remember how exhilarating this was to perform, however, especially this part of the Requiem.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a piece of music all about magic. It was written based on a poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Disney Fantasia version has Mickey Mouse as the apprentice who is tired of having to fetch water himself and who has a go at using magic to get the chores done with unexpected results. I have mentioned Fantasia several times in my playlists, and in fact a couple of the other pieces of music in this playlist featured in the first Fantasia film because it had such a good selection of music, and the cartoons that was made to accompany these pieces of music made the music so much more relevant, affecting and memorable for me as a child watching.

You can listen to the whole of this playlist here:

Reaponses to Music

Learning to Listen to Music: What Does This Music Make You Think Of?

We have music on a lot of the time at home. I love pretty much any music, and my husband particularly loves classical music and jazz. So we have music on when we are cooking, when we are eating, when we are working, when driving the car, when the children are playing….. It is almost always there in the background, like a soundtrack to our lives.

While it is great that my children hear lots of different musical works from different genres, I also want them to be able to properly listen to that music, to properly hear it rather than just use it as a soundtrack, to think about that music, and express their opinion about it: Do they like it? How does the music make them feel? Do they want to dance to it?

To do this, I have tried a number of techniques to get the children to tell me what they think of it, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the questions I have asked or the things I have asked them to do have just been way too advanced for them, but my questions sometimes produce some very funny and lovely responses, especially from my son who can go off at a stream of consciousness tangent at the best of times!

When driving the car with the children when they were very small, I would ask the very simple question “do you like this music?” The answer was always yes. I don’t think they were always telling me their actual opinion on whether they liked the music, they were just giving me the answer they thought I wanted. I would answer my own question, and talk a little bit about why I liked a piece of music, or why I was not so keen on that piece of music.

I started putting some music on at the same time as getting paints and paper out at home. I would ask the children to paint something as a response to the music. They would paint exactly what they wanted, and in no way was their painting anything to do with the music. However, they were engaged in relating their pictures to the music being played.

At dinner time I sometimes talk to the children about a piece of music and what it makes me think about: what pictures come to my mind when I hear a piece of music. My husband does the same, he has different pictures in his head when hearing the same piece of music. The music means different things to us both. My children are both asked for their opinions on the music as well – what does the music make them think of? Does it make them imagine a particular scene, or imagine a story? Generally my three year old just shouts out “Peppa Pig” and my son says something about superheroes, or bad guys, whatever he is interested in at that point.

Although their responses are not necessarily about the music they are listening to, what I am doing with this exercise is encouraging the children to develop their own opinions and express those opinions about music. Their opinions and what they want to tell me about it are valid. To show them that music can be a prompt for your imagination, that it can tell you a story, and that it is what the music means for you that is important.

As I said, it can be quite amusing to listen to what my children says the music means to them, and I thought it might be a fun series of blog posts to write, noting down their responses to various pieces of music. To see how their responses develop over time, and whether they start to match the music a little more, rather than just be a stream of consciousness response on the subject of superheroes or Peppa Pig for example. Watch out for it here, and I would love to see the results of you doing this with your children too.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: Welcome to the Symphony

My Music Book Review for today is the sound book Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan and illustrated by James Williamson.

It is an exploration of both the instruments that play in a Symphony Orchestra, and also the 5th Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. You almost certainly have heard this symphony before as it is very, very well known. If you would like to listen to it in full, you could listen to it on Spotify here:

The book is a sound book, so as you go through the pages there are prompts to press corresponding buttons on the book that demonstrate the sound of the violins, the cellos, the oboes or the trombones that go into making up a symphony orchestra. I don’t know about your children, but being able to press buttons and make noises when reading a book is just the best thing in the world ever. So a noise book is always a winner in this house. It’s also a great way to get the children enthused about a book about music. Music is all about what you can hear, so it makes perfect sense to have a book you can listen to as well as read.

There is an on/off switch on the back to save the batteries, you just have to remember to turn it off, something I don’t always do.

This book, goes further than talking about the instruments of the orchestra (which this book I have previously reviewed covers, as does this one), and also introduces your children to an amazing work. It explains what terms like melody and harmony mean, again giving examples for your children to listen to, and explains the main structure of the symphony. All of this is presented in very simple form so that its young readers can understand the concepts explained.

Music Book Review: First Book About the Orchestra

There are lovely illustrations with an adorable audience of mice.

I would say that this book is mainly aimed at younger children, so pre-schoolers or those just starting school, especially if you are reading the book with them. For developing readers the book is written in simple language so that young readers would be able to read the book independently. My 6 year old thoroughly enjoys the book and I have sometimes found him sat on his own reading the book, pressing the buttons and listening carefully to the examples given. It has prompted him to ask to listen to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I would love to say that he sat transfixed listening to the music, and he did concentrate on it for about 5-10 minutes before getting something out to do while the music was on.

Music Book Review: Usborne Listen and Learn Musical Instruments

We bought this book from Amazon, and on the day of writing this blog post (because Amazon’s prices do change) it is for sale at a cost of £15.19.

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Mini Tambourines

Mini tambourines are a good instrument choice for smaller children. They are easier for small children to hold onto, and therefore play independently; and for very small children who mouth objects, enclosed mini tambourines are available, which are much safer for them to use on their own.

What Is a Tambourine?

Tambourine means little drum, and is an instrument from the percussion family. Percussion instruments are those that are played by hitting, shaking, rubbing or scraping them. They are generally hand held, but can be fixed into position, like a drum kit. Tambourines have a round frame with metal discs, called zils, within that frame. The frame can be left open, so just the frame with the zils; or a drum skin can be stretched over the top of the frame.

Spotlight on Tambourine

How Does a Mini Tambourine Differ from a Normal Tambourine?

A tambourine looks like a drum with bells around the side, whereas mini tambourines look much more like a sleigh bell type instrument. We own two, one that is enclosed and one that is open. The open mini tambourine is shaped like a crescent, with a hand hold that does not have any bells on it. It is made out of plastic and so is very hard wearing with children who drop it all the time, chuck it back into the music box, even at each other on occasion if I have not been looking.

Our other mini tambourine does not really look like a tambourine. Again it is made out of plastic. The zils are covered over with plastic as well so that the children cannot actually access them. There is a handle attached to the instrument for easy holding. This type of instrument is the safest option for small children who like to put everything into their mouths as the zils cannot easily detach from the instrument, and if they do detach they cannot escape their plastic container.

How Do You Play a Mini Tambourine?

Basically, a mini tambourine is played in the same way as a tambourine.

  • You can tap the mini tambourine with your hands or with a stick.
  • You can hold the instrument in one hand and tap it against the palm of your other hand.
  • You can tap the instrument against your body, for example your legs, or feet. If you choose to tap your mini tambourine against yours or your child’s head, it would be worth doing it gently, perhaps!
  • You can shake the mini tambourine.

Basically, these are the same instrument as a tambourine, but on a smaller scale. In the case of the enclosed mini tambourine, they are a much safer alternative for very small children to play independently. You don’t have to keep your eyes on your child constantly with the mini tambourine, and you just have to watch that they don’t hit themselves or their siblings (or the cat) too hard with them!

Mini tambourines are a great alternative not only for tambourines, but also for sleigh bells when playing Christmas music, especially the enclosed ones. They make a similar sound and can be played in the same way as the sleigh bells.

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Wooden Sticks

This is the next blog post in my series of posts highlighting different, simple and affordable musical instruments that you may wish to purchase to start playing with your little ones. These instruments are almost exclusively percussion instruments, and for each of them your child can start playing them independently to a greater or lesser extent from an early age.

Today I am looking at musical sticks. Very simply two pieces of wood that can be tapped together, or on the floor or on yours or your child’s body. The sorts of sticks I tend to use for this are wooden sticks, but they can be made out of plastic or (and I wouldn’t recommend these with children) fibreglass.

Wooden sticks have been used in music for many, many years. Aboriginal Australians used clapping sticks (also known as musicstick, bilma, bimli or clappers) to accompany voices and keep the rhythm of the chants used in traditional ceremonies. Northern Australians would use these instruments to accompany the digeridoo. A similar instrument, known as claves, were used to play repeated rhythm patterns in Cuban music. You can hear the claves right from the start and throughout this piece of music, Espiritu by Ann Reynolds:

Learning about musical pulse with wooden sticks

So, when playing the sticks with your child, you do not need to to attempt anything remotely complicated at all. Simply, the sticks can be tapped or hit together while you are listening to music together or singing together. Tap the sticks one onto the other along to the beat of the music you are listening to or singing. Every piece of music has a beat, if you find yourself tapping along to music you will most likely be tapping along to the beat. This beat is what you should use when tapping your sticks together.

Wooden sticks are great for helping to teach your little ones about feeling the beat or pulse of music – I will write another day about why is so good for your little ones to learn how to feel the pulse in music; it has perhaps some surprising benefits, but the most obvious one would be in helping children develop motor skills.

Choose music with a strong beat to play along to such as marching music (usually have two or four beats in a bar), waltzes (3 beats in a bar), or many pop songs where you can play along with the drum beat to help you find the pulse.

Demonstrating Playing on the Beat

2 beats in a bar
3 beats in a bar
4 beats in a bar

Learning Dynamics with Wooden Sticks

You can also explore how to play loud and quiet with wooden sticks. You can tap the sticks together very gently, even rub the sticks together to play quietly, telling your child what you are doing. You can bang the sticks together with more force, or bang the sticks on the floor (a hard surface floor), or on a table to make a loud sound, again telling your child what you are doing.

Playing loud
Playing quietly

Independent Musical Exploration

Playing wooden sticks can be very easy, so is great for even very young children to attempt to play.

  • As a tiny baby, your child will not be able to play the sticks themselves of course, but you can play them in front of your baby, to one side of their head and then the other, towards the top of their head, encouraging your baby to turn their head to see where the sounds are coming from. You can gently tap the sticks on their body – their hand or legs for example – when tapping along with the beat. That was your baby is feeling the pulse of the music you are playing.
  • As an older baby and toddler, have two sets of sticks – one for you and one for baby. Encourage your child to hold onto the sticks to see what they feel like. Wooden sticks tend to be fairly thin and so easy for very young children to hold onto. They may try to hit the sticks together, or on the floor, or they may just try to eat them!
  • An older toddler and pre-schooler can copy what you are doing with your sticks more and more, so are more able to play loudly and quietly, or along with the beat as you are doing.
  • As your child grows, you and your child can play “call and response” or turn taking games with wooden sticks – you play a rhythm with your sticks, and see if your child can play the same rhythm back to you. Or you play a rhythm, and see if your child can play their own rhythm in response to yours. Of particular importance here is that you each take turns to play, waiting for the other person to finish before playing yourself.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: The Bear, the Piano, the Dog and the Fiddle

This week’s music book review is the lovely story , The Bear, the Piano, the Dog and the Fiddle by David Lichfield.

This is a story about friendship, the friendship between Hector, the fiddle player, and Hugo, his dog.

At the start of the story we meet Hector, an older man who is a fiddle player. Hugo, his dog, is his biggest fan and travels with him as he plays his fiddle as a busker in town. As Hector gets older he plays his violin less and less, and spends more and more time at home. So Hugo picks up his violin.

Hugo proves to be a very good fiddle player and when Hector finds out he was jealous, but he decided to teach Hugo everything he knows about fiddle playing. Hugo becomes a better and better musician (practice makes perfect, after all!) and one day is approached by the famous piano playing bear (the subject of his own rather lovely book that I may review here one day) and Hugo leaves to join the bear on tour.

Hector’s reaction to Hugo’s talent and success is explored in the remainder of the book, and I won’t spoil the ending for you, other than to say it is a lovely book with, of course, a happy ending!

The themes of friendship, jealousy, hard work leading to success, all framed within a story about musicians are all explored within this book. The moral of the tale is not hammered home, as it can be with some stories, but it is introduced gently and resolved without it feeling like you are being hit over the head with “the lesson to learn”.

The author is also the book’s illustrator, and he is an illustrator first and foremost I believe.

I bought this for my son who was 5 at the time I bought it, but both children like listening to the story. It is fast becoming a favourite for my little girl.

Playlists

Animals in classical music

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I have previously put together a playlist of children’s songs that have animals as their subject matter. Animals are not only a good subject for children’s songs, but also provide great subject matter for composers of classical music. Here are some classical music pieces that feature animals as their subject. This blog post contains links to YouTube videos of these pieces, extracts of them for the longer works, or alternatively, you can have a listen to the whole playlist on Spotify, my Spotify playlist is at the bottom of this post.

The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens

Written by the French composer Saint-Saens in the late 19th century, the Carnival of the Animals is a set of 14 pieces of music that were written for children. Each piece of music is intended to describe a different animal. So you have an elegant, graceful swan in one piece played on cello with long, smooth graceful notes accompanied by a tinkling piano suggestive of the water the swan is swimming along on); a lumbering elephant played by low stringed instruments that are painting a picture of how big and heavy an elephant is; a piece about birds in an aviary that is played by wind instruments – flutes playing high, fast notes suggesting the way that birds flit and dart about in the air. I have put this music on at home sometimes when I want the children to dart about and burn off some energy getting them to pretend to be the birds, or to be horses running along really fast. I have also put this on and asked my eldest to listen carefully to the music and tell me what animal he thinks is the subject of each particular piece.

Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev

This piece of music was my son’s favourite thing to listen to and watch for a good 4 or 5 months when he was 2 years old. We put the Disney version on one day to try to get him to watch something that wasn’t Peppa Pig I think, and he was absolutely hooked. We had to play Peter and the Wolf every day for a while – that wolf was caught and taken to the zoo so very many times. He even got us to make the characters out of play dough and then air drying clay so he could play Peter and the Wolf. I’ll be honest, all of the shapes I made for the characters were incredibly similar, just the wolf was perhaps a bit longer, but it didn’t seem to matter to my son.

Peter and the Wolf was written by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1936. It is a musical symphony written for children telling the cautionary tale of Peter who is warned by his grandfather to stay at home after reports of a wolf in the area are received. Of course Peter thinks he can tackle the wolf himself and save the town, so he ignores his grandfather’s warnings and sets off to catch the wolf accompanied by a duck a bird and a cat.

Each of the characters in the story – Peter, the duck, the bird, the cat, the grandfather, the wolf and even the hunters – has their own theme tune which introduces the character and appears regularly when that character is part of the action, helping young listeners understand the story.

Flight of the Bumblebee by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Another composition from the Romantic period in music history, this was written originally to be featured in an opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The piece sounds like a bumblebee flying, darting around and changing direction. There are many versions of this work available to listen to. The most common are for violin, flute or piano. The piece works very well as an energy buster for young children – ask your little one to dance around like a bumblebee to the music and it will quickly wear them out! It is a very descriptive piece of music, so an older child could be asked to guess what animal is being portrayed when they listen to it. I have linked to the piano version below, but the spotify playlist with these pieces of music on has a version of this piece played on violin. Which do you prefer?

The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Originally composed for violin and piano by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1914, and inspired by the poem The Lark Ascending by George Meredith, Vaughan Williams re-wrote it for violin and orchestra during the First World War. It is the version for violin and orchestra that is most often performed today. Listening to this piece you can hear the bird, the violin, flying up high into the sky, with the orchestra painting a picture of the landscape below that the lark is flying over. The piece ends as it began, with just the violin, at the end the lark flies high up into the sky as the violin plays up in its highest register. It is beautiful.

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring by Frederick Delius

This is a tone poem (a piece of music in one movement that paints a picture of a poem, short story, painting etc) composed in 1912. Here as the orchestra plays it is depicting a countryside scene. The clarinet is the cuckoo, and at first you can only hear it occasionally, but the clarinet plays more and more as the piece continues. With an older child, ask them to listen to the piece and count how many times they hear the clarinet and its cuckoo sound. Perhaps you could have a competition between yourselves to see how many cuckoo calls you can hear in the piece?

Le Merle Noir by Olivier Messiaen

This is a piece of music that I know quite well as I am a flautist. I battled with trying to play this whilst at University, not always successfully! The subject of this twentieth century composition is a Blackbird. The flute (an instrument that is quite high in its register, and so is often used to evoke birdsong) is the ideal instrument for this piece of music.

The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky

This orchestral piece of music, a ballet, was based on a fairy tale about a magical glowing bird that is imprisoned in a castle with a beautiful princess. Prince Ivan searches for this bird and tries to rescue the bird and the princess. The ballet tells the tale of Prince Ivan’s search and rescue and what happens afterwards. The Firebird Suite featured in Disney’s updated animation Fantasia in 2000 and it is the audio of this version that I link to below.

Playlist

Playlists · Themed Music

Classical Music for Autumn/Fall Playlist

It is now officially Autumn (or Fall for those in the USA). Music has always been written about and for the seasons, and Autumn is no different. I am writing this on September 21, the equinox, or the day on which there is equal amounts of daylight and darkness. From now on, the nights will start drawing in, the leaves will change to beautiful oranges and reds and eventually fall off the trees. We will start wrapping up in scarves and coats and gloves. I love this time of the year, and I love the music that is written about this season. If you are planning to sit down for a relaxing day with your children, or are looking for a playlist to accompany your child’s learning about the season, then you could do worse than playing my classical music for Autumn playlist that I link to at the end of this blog post.

The Four Seasons – Autumn by Antonio Vivaldi

A playlist about the seasons has to, of course, start with The Four Seasons by Vivaldi for obvious reasons. The Four Seasons was written as four separate, but thematically linked, concerti for violin and orchestra. The third concerto in this series was written in the key of F major and was entitled “Autumn”. At the same time as publishing The Four Seasons Vivaldi published a set of accompanying sonnets telling his audiences what he had tried to convey in the music. Listen out for hunters with horns and dogs in the second movement (the Allegro, or faster movement) and see if you and your children can hear them in Vivaldi’s music.

Das Jahr by Fanny Mendelssohn

Das Jahr translates as The Year. Fanny Mendelssohn’s piano song cycle was written in 1841 as a set of 12 pieces, each roughly attributed to a month of the year. It was written as a sort of musical diary of a year she spent in Italy with her family.

The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst

Imogen Holst composed this piece for her friend, the cellist Pamela Hind o’Malley. It is a set of three studies on a piece of music by Martin Peerson, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book which was composed around the 16th or 17th century. It’s title places the piece in this season. This piece does not feature on my spotify playlist below as I could not find it on spotify.

Music for Rainy Weather

Folk Songs of the Four Seasons by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams wrote this for a women’s choral festival based on English folk songs. Autumn, here, is made up of three songs, two harvest songs: John Barleycorn and An Acre of Land sung by the whole chorus; and a song called The Unquiet Grave for 3 unaccompanied (or acapella) voices, a somewhat bleak song about a girl meeting her dead lover at the grave.

Shaker Loops by John Adams

This is not actually a piece of music that is written about Autumn, but listening to the string instruments it sounds a little like wind rustling through leaves, first gently, and then in a much more stormy fashion.

9 Songs for Summer

Autumn Gardens by Einojuhani Rautavaara

A beautiful piece of music from this Finnish composer, written at the turn of the century, this is a beautiful musical portrayal of the colours and sounds of an autumn garden.

String Quartet no 15 by Ludwig van Beethoven

This piece of music was composed in 1825 after Beethoven had recovered from a near fatal illness. String Quartets are pieces of music for four instruments – two violins, viola and cello. This string quartet is in 5 movements, the third being a song of thanksgiving entitled Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. For this reason this piece is often played in November, near Thanksgiving in the USA. This is the movement you will find immediately below. I have included the whole string quartet in my spotify playlist.

Playlist

Concerts and Events

Live Music!!

I have been writing this blog for a little while now, and I must admit that by now I had expected to have written quite a few reviews of live music events that we had gone to as a family. However, 2020 had different plans, and I can count on one hand the number of times that we have been out of the house somewhere other than my mother’s house or the supermarket!

We have been very lucky, however, to get to see two live music events in recent weeks. We are members of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and they have live music on a Sunday from their band stand. We had not been expecting it, but were delighted when we arrived there one Sunday to find a band playing. My children had an absolute ball dancing around in front of the band stand, despite the rain. And for the whole of the following week my son told everyone we saw (admittedly that wasn’t many people, and mostly via a screen) that we had seen live music.

We had a bigger treat last Thursday when two professional musicians, cellist Jackie Tyler and violin player Julia Aberg played a concert on our road – even better for us was that it was pretty much right outside our door!

Jackie and Julia played pieces such as Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens and an Argentinian Tango. My little girl, when she wasn’t trying to make a bid for freedom up the road, thoroughly enjoyed dancing along in our front garden. Jackie and Julia also played the theme tunes to Harry Potter and In the Night Garden. There were quite a few families with young children there, and an amusing “oooh” went around as In the Night Garden began – Jackie and Julia knew their audience!

The weather, that had been threatening thunderstorms, held out for us, and we had a visit from the local ice cream van, who I am sure initially thought it was their lucky day, turning up to a street with loads of people already outside waiting for them, until they realised we were there for something else. Thankfully they turned up in between pieces.

It was really lovely seeing so many people from our local area turning up and watching the concert. In a time when arts venues and artists of all disciplines are struggling so much it is so good to see that the appetite for live performance has not diminished. And on a personal note, it was so good to see and hear live performance. As brilliant as it is to have online concerts and performances available (and I am so grateful that this has happened, if it had to happen at all, at a time when technology makes it possible to have amazing entertainment at the touch of a button in your own home) there is no substitute for live performance. Music sounds and feels different when you experience it happening in front of you, and when you experience it with other people. It is a shared experience that I have very much missed in these last few months.

Jackie and Julia normally perform with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a world class orchestra right on our door step. We have been to the CBSO’s brilliant Notelets series of concerts, which are aimed at children, and you can read my review of the concert here. The CBSO have, of course, been forced to suspend their concert performances during the pandemic. Hopefully it will not be too much longer until it is possible for musicians to perform together again.

Ukulele Challenge

Ukulele Challenge Update Weeks 5-7

As expected, we have not practised ukulele as much as we were doing in the last few weeks as it is holiday time here. We are starting week 4 (of 8) of the summer holidays right now, and I have to admit that this holiday is going really slowly. Probably because we are at home almost all of the time, and if not at our home, then at my mother’s home. In order to give each of my children plenty of one on one time, they are each spending a night at their Grandma’s house each week and some time with me and their father just them each week. Our routine is very relaxed and so it is very easy to forget to do the ukulele practice every day. We have, however, been playing fairly regularly, and some progress is being made.

Progress Made: We have been plodding along with the same two songs for the last few weeks; but my son is starting to play more and more on the beat and he has been practising chord changes that are becoming more fluid. I have been teaching my son how to tune his ukulele as well and he now has a good go at doing his own tuning before we start playing. Tied to this, we have been talking again about the way in which the ukulele works (and all string instruments), and I have been explaining to him about how the sound is produced when playing – the string is plucked or strummed and it vibrates, it is that vibration that produces the sound that he can hear. The shorter the string is, then the higher the sound is produced and the longer the string is the lower the sound is that is produced. I have shown him that in placing his finger down on the strings before he strums them, he shortens the string and produces a higher note.

I taught my son his first scale on the ukulele (just the scale of C major) and so picking out single notes rather than just strumming chords. We talked about the note names as he was playing them and the names of the 4 strings.

Plans for the next few weeks: Let’s be honest, I am unlikely to have made much more progress with him this week, especially as it is his turn to stay at Grandma’s this week, so it will be a couple of weeks at least before we have made much progress. I want us to add at least one more song to our repertoire, and learn one new scale. I want to introduce him to the idea of an “ending” to each of the song and get him to listen to the songs he is playing and see if he thinks a song sounds finished or not.

Playlists

Lullabies I Have Sung To My Children

I have been singing to my children from their very earliest days. I love to sing, and am a singer, so there are very few days that go by when I don’t sing at all at some point, whether my children want me to or not!

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Babies absolutely love the sound of their parents’ voices. The hearing function in a foetus starts at around 4 months gestation, although the ear is not fully formed for another 2 months. Babies can hear sounds closest to them from very early on in their development. The sounds that are closest to them are their mother’s bodily functions, like the sounds her lungs make as she breathes, the sound her heart makes as it is beating, and the sounds of her voice as she is talking. They become very familiar with her voice and the voices of people closest to her. Once a baby is born, the sounds of their parents voices and those of people who have stayed close to their mother during pregnancy are very important and comforting to them, and the most beautiful to them. So, no matter what you think of your own voice, your baby will love it and will love to hear you sing to them.

I have sung to and with my children in celebration, to get them to dance around, as entertainment for them and for me, to comfort them, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, because it made them smile, because it calmed and reassured them and helped them sleep.

Here are some of the songs I have sung to my children in an effort to get them to sleep.

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is a hymn that has been around since the 18th century. It became popular in America, particularly in Baptist and Methodist churches, after the composer William Walker set the words to a new melody; the tune that is most frequently sung today. Amazing Grace is a song that holds memories not only of my mother singing to me, but also of it being my Grandma’s favourite hymn. My son was not a good sleeper for the first 2 years of his life. So in common with many sleep-deprived parents I turned to baby sleep books. One recommended putting sleep cues in place for baby when trying to lessen reliance on feeding to sleep, such as having the same routine, using the same smell for bedtime, and singing the same song every night so that baby would associate that song with sleep and (the theory went) fall asleep just by smelling that smell and/or hearing that song. So I chose Amazing Grace and sang the song to him every night for months and months, possibly even a year. He never fell asleep by the end of the song, but he does like it! When my daughter was born, after singing the same song to her brother every single night, Amazing Grace popped out of my mouth when singing to her to go to sleep without even thinking about it. This video is me singing Amazing Grace to my daughter when she was 3 months old. It was VERY familiar to her by then and I am sure she is joining in!

Goodnight Sweetheart by The Spaniels

This song was used in the film 3 Men and a Baby, and the song magically got the baby to sleep within seconds just like it always happens with TV/movie babies. In the same way, that in TV/movies parents can say goodnight to their children, give them a kiss and ruffle their hair, turn the light out and their child instantly goes to sleep. That never happened with my children, but it was a nice song to sing to them.

Wiegenlied (or Lullaby) by Johannes Brahms

If you were asked to think of a lullaby out of the blue, there is a very good chance that the melody to this piece of music would be one of the first you would think of. One of the composer Brahms’ most popular pieces of music, it was composed in the 19th century for voice and piano and first performed in December 1868 by Luise Dustman and Clara Schumann, a pianist and composer in her own right. The original Lyrics were taken from a collection of German folk poems, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or The Boy’s Magic Horn. I have included an instrumental version here, for obvious reasons – the baby just couldn’t resist going to sleep here!

Stay Awake from the film Mary Poppins

As my son got older, and I wanted a change from singing Amazing Grace to him (as an adult you can get sick of any piece of music!), I started singing this song to my son. On the surface the lyrics seem to be encouraging the children to stay awake because they are not sleepy at all, hence the title, but really enticing the children with their soft, deep pillows and the world all being fast asleep. My son really liked this song and still occasionally asks me to sing it to him before he goes off to sleep.

Go to Sleep from Tee and Mo

I loved the CBeebies programme Tee and Mo. Tee and Mo is a lovely cartoon about the adventures a monkey called Tee and his mum Mo have – all very ordinary things like going shopping, but it’s lovely. And the songs from the show are brilliant too. I don’t think it was around when my son was very small, but my daughter loved it, and I bought the album to play in the car for her (and me to be honest). There are so many great songs on there to sing with your children, but this one has to be my favourite.

Lullaby by Josh Groban featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo with lyrics by Dave Matthews

This is just a beautiful song, a fusion of Western and South African music. I heard this song long before I had children, and it was one I knew I would want to sing to my children when I had them.

Coventry Carol

OK, this is a rather odd song to include in a list of lullabies as it is a Christmas song. I include it because for all of my thinking about what I would sing to my children/ how I would be with my children etc before they actually arrived, in the fog of new motherhood this was the song that actually popped into my head as I was pacing up and down the bedroom in the dark trying to get him to sleep largely because of the lyrics to the song “Lully Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child” Despite some of the sad (That woe is me, poor Child for Thee) or even violent lyrics (Herod the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day. His men of men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay), the melody is gentle, and beautiful. Needless to say I only ever sang the first verse!

Homemade Instruments

Making DIY Castanets

It has been a little while – about 1 1/2 months – since I last wrote a blog post showing you how to make a musical instrument at home, so I thought it was high time I did a new one. This time, I have made a couple of pairs of castanets. There are different ways to make these instruments, but this is how I made them today.

What is a castanet?

Firstly, what is a castanet? A castanet is a percussion instrument, known particularly for their role in Spanish Flamenco music although they feature in music of many more traditions and cultures. They were traditionally made of hardwood, although fibreglass is becoming more popular, and of course castanets that are suitable for children, especially young children, are often made from plastic. A pair of castanets (each instrument is a pair already) is played by clicking or hitting the pair together. Two pairs are played together, one in each hand and each pair would make a slightly different sound.

How to play the castanets

There are different ways to play, but here are three simple ways to play that you can use at home:

  • Hold a pair of castanets in one hand looping the string over your index finger. Put your index finger on one side of the pair of castanets and your thumb on the other. Open and close your index finger and thumb to click the castanets together.
  • Put the pair of castanets on the floor and tap on the top of it with your hand.
  • Put the pair of castanets in one hand and use the other to tap on the top of it.

I don’t have a pair of castanets to demonsrate for you, but here is a short video of castanets in action.

Making your own castanets

You can make your own castanets with some very simple things that you may already have at home. You will need:

  • Craft sticks (I used large, plain craft sticks because that is what I have at home, and also once the castanets were made I could leave them for my children to decorate)
  • Bottle tops (I used beer bottle tops, obviously it was a chore for me to have to drink the beer in order to get the bottle tops. Any bottle tops would work)
  • Small amount of cardboard
  • Elastic bands
  • Scissors
  • Glue (I used a hot glue gun, but other glues or even sticky tape would probably work just as well)

Firstly I hot glued the bottle tops onto the craft sticks, making sure that the bottle tops were roughly level with each other.

Next, I put the craft sticks together so that the bottle tops were touching each other. I placed an elastic band at the other end of the craft sticks and tried to play the castanets. They did not quite work, as there was nothing there to make the craft sticks spring away from each other after they have been tapped together.

So I cut a small piece of cardboard, mine was slightly wider than my craft sticks, but I could have made more effort to make the cardboard the same width, or thinner than my craft sticks. I folded the cardboard into a V shape and hot glued the cardboard to each of the craft sticks so that the open side of the V faced upwards towards the bottle tops. The cardboard, which made a lever inside the castanet, was approximately half way up and I took care to ensure that the bottle tops would still be level with each other.

I made two pairs of castanets, one for each of my children. I found that one of the pairs of castanets worked best with an elastic band would around the bottom underneath the cardboard lever, and one of the worked best without the elastic band. Here they are in action:

Now it will be over to my children to decorate them however they see fit.

If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed, or got something out of this post! If you have enjoyed what you have read, and would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on glockenspiel

This is the second post in my series on musical instruments you might want to purchase to have in your music box at home.

All of the instruments featured in this series of posts can be bought relatively cheaply from various shops (even, dare I say it, Amazon, because we have all found ourselves on Amazon at 3am when up with the children, haven’t we?? OK maybe just me then!) They can sometimes be found at charity shops. This is one of the glockenspiels we have at home, the Halilit Baby Xylophone. We actually have about 3 of them, no idea why, but there you have it. (I should point out here, that I have always thought these instruments were xylophones, but someone kindly pointed out on Twitter that actually the instrument I was writing about was a glockenspiel as xylophones are actually wooden instruments!)

A glockenspiel is a percussion instrument. Percussion instruments are instruments that are played by hitting or striking them, in this case with a beater. The glockenspiel is a tuned percussion instrument, metal bars of different lengths arranged in a similar way to the piano. It is the different lengths of the metal bars that produce the different notes of the glockenspiel as they are hit. The longer the metal bar is, the lower the note produced.

Some of the reasons why I like this instrument with small children in the house are:

  • It isn’t too loud – this glockenspiel can be played nice and quietly, and even when your child is able to grasp the beater him- or herself and hit the thing with all of their might, it isn’t an instrument that goes right through you!
  • It is a simple, easy instrument and does not take much practice to be able to play a tune out of it. Ours came with a little booklet that had a few recognisable tunes you can play in it to get you started. You can also easily play around with glissandi (where you slide the beater up and down all of the notes, and it makes a sort of magical sliding sound. My children loved this.)
  • Your baby can start to play with the glockenspiel as soon as they are able to hold the beater by themselves. They can start to learn about cause and effect playing this instrument – they hit the glockenspiel with the thing in their hand and it makes a noise.
  • It is neat. Such a mum thing to say, but when tidying up I love that I can put the beater back in its place on the back of the glockenspiel and then next time my children get every single instrument out of the music box, we still have everything we need to play the glockenspiel was all together.
  • Our glockenspiel is a lovely bright colour, which is very attractive for the children. The metal bars that make up the glockenspiel have their note names labelled on each bar, and this helps the children play tunes (as they get older), because I can tell my son to play two Cs, then two Gs, for example, to start playing a tune he can recognise.

To play the glockenspiel you use a beater and hit the beater against one of the metal bars. To make a nice sound, you need to hold the beater loosely and hit the glockenspiel with a sort of bouncing action, like this:

If you hold on to the beater too tightly, or hit the glockenspiel too hard, then you will get a much harder, less tuneful sound like this:

That is pretty much it for the glockenspiel , other than having a play around with it, trying some tunes out. I will end this blog post with me playing a quick Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on our glockenspiel.

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Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on tambourine

If you have read this blog before you will know that we very much enjoy making our own musical instruments. We have made all sorts of instruments from drums, to windchimes, to shakers, and I have more in the pipeline to make with the children over the summer holidays which are due to start at the end of the week – 8 weeks of holidays!! We are also lucky to have a number of musical instruments at home as well – I am a musician after all!

If you are wanting to start a collection of musical instruments for your children what should you start with? And how would you play those instruments if you got hold of them? Where would you find those musical instruments at a reasonable price? I can hopefully try to help you with these questions over time, and I thought I would start with providing a spotlight, if you like, on some of the instruments we have at home for the children to play with. If you have any specific questions, please ask, but for today let us have a look at the tambourine.

Tambourine means little drum, and is an instrument from the percussion family. Percussion instruments are those that are played by hitting, shaking, rubbing or scraping them. They are generally hand held, but can be part of a drum kit and so fixed into position. Tambourines have a round frame with metal discs, called zils, within that frame. The frame can be left open, so just the frame with the zils; or a drum skin can be stretched over the top of the frame.

We have had a few tabourines over the years. Both of my children, together with pretty much all children who are allowed anywhere near a television I think, discovered the delights of Peppa Pig when they were small. At times they have been bought Peppa Pig magazines, and on one occasion there were free gifts of musical instruments on the cover of the magazine. These were small plastic instruments and I think there was a guitar, a harmonica and a tambourine included. None of these instruments survived all that long, I think the guitar broke within days, but the tambourine lasted for quite a while. It was made entirely out of plastic, and so produced a rather muted sound, but the children enjoyed playing with it.

I found our next tambourine in a charity shop, and this one has stayed with us much longer. I have found many musical instruments in charity shops over the years, and would recommend having a look in there, especially when your children are small and like to either chew or chuck instruments more than try to play them. Obviously, especially in these times, anything you buy from a charity shop needs to be cleaned before your children play with them, especially wind instruments like recorders!

For one of the children’s birthdays we asked one of my relatives to buy a set of musical instruments for them, and so we were given the lovely closed tambourine pictured at the top of this blog post. This makes a much nicer sound than the plastic tambourines that we had previously, but it is a little more expensive, and easier to damage, than a plastic tambourine.

So, the tambourine, can be played in three ways.

Firstly, it can be hit or banged like a drum using a beater or hands, as long as you have a tambourine with a skin on rather than an open tambourine. For very small children you can either play the tambourine for them, letting them feel the vibrations of the instrument while they listen to the sound it makes, or you can take their hands or feet and gently manipulate them to play the tambourine themselves. Older children can go wild hitting the tambourine and making their own music, if they want to!

Secondly, a tambourine can be shaken; either gently to produce a quiet sound, or more vigorously to produce a loud sound. Very small babies will be unlikely to be able to shake a tambourine by themselves and will need your help to hear the sound it makes. However, as soon as they are able to grasp the tambourine themselves, your baby will thoroughly enjoy being able to make a noise with it. It is an instrument they can start to play independently from a very young age. It will help your baby to understand cause and effect as well – I move my hand while holding this and it makes a noise.

Finally, it can be played combining the two above. If you use a clapping action, hitting the tambourine with one hand while holding it in the other, or shaking it then hitting it with one hand like this:

You could even use another part of your body, like a leg or your tummy, tapping the tambourine against it to make a sound.

I must sound a note of caution, however. Babies put everything in their mouths, and the metal discs, or zils, on the sides of tambourines that give them their distinctive sound are not safe to go into a child’s mouth. They can be very sharp, they are generally made of metal so not a great material to be chewed, and the spokes holding them in place can break so they could be a choking hazard. A normal tambourine can be played with only under close adult supervision, therefore. You should not leave your baby or young child alone with it. There are baby tambourines, like this one that you can buy that alleviate this problem as they enclose the metal discs and so your baby can’t get them into their mouths. These are great, but the downside is that they cannot be played as a drum like a normal tambourine, so are a little limited in their application. They can provide great peace of mind if your baby always finds the things they are not supposed to be playing with on their own as soon as your back is turned, however.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: Debi Gilori’s Nursery Rhymes

When I first had my son, my eldest, was home from the hospital,everyone had been to visit and we found ourselves alone for the first time, I thought I would sing to him. I was a musician and had spent a lot of time at school and Uni singing so I must know what to sing to him, right? In the fog of new motherhood, with the lack of sleep, I could not remember a single nursery rhyme to sing to him. Not one!

So I was very pleased when I was given this book by one of my friends. It was an anthology of nursery rhymes, pretty much all of the songs I then remembered my mum singing with me as a little girl. Just reading through the book reminded me of the songs I was reaching for to sing to him!

It is illustrated by Debi Gilori, the illustrations capturing the spirit of each nursery rhyme.

A little extra information about some of the songs is given- background to the songs, why they were written or how children used to dance or play along to them for example.

And a CD is included of all the songs in the book. You do not need to use the CD to enjoy the book, I have not spotted any extra information or songs on the CD at all, but it is a lovely extra to have. Some of the songs are sung on the Cd, and some spoken, there is a nice mix of the two, and Debi Gliori gives a nice introduction to the CD and how to use it to accompany the book.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: Usborne Listen and Learn Musical Instruments

Today’s Music Book Review is Listen and Learn Musical Instruments from Usborne Books.

We do have quite a lot of Usborne books at home. They are quite fantastic for young children – and that is my experience so far as my eldest is 6 years old as I write this. My recommendations may change as my children get older. It is a rather different book than many of my other recommendations as there is no story to be told here at all. It looks a bit like a list of instruments. The book is actually meant to be listened to rather than read.

It gives children an opportunity to hear the sounds that different instruments make. The book consists of a number of different cards that have pictures of musical instruments on. To hear each instrument, you need to press the “go button” at the top of each page/card and then press on the picture of the instrument. The name of each instrument is given as well, and they are grouped into various categories – instruments that are played by hitting them, by blowing into them, by plucking their strings etc.

In addition to the set of wind instruments on the main page, a further 4 double-sided cards are included in a pocket each with 9 further instruments to listen to. To hear those instruments you slide the card into the keyboard frame, press “go” and select the instrument you want to listen to.

As with all sound books, there is an on/off switch so if your children will not leave it alone and it starts to drive you mad you can turn the sound off, and also to make sure the battery doesn’t go flat when you are not using it.

We really like this book, and like exploring the different instruments depicted – I had probably heard but never seen a shofar or a serpent before reading this book. Both my children like it – it involves pressing buttons, what is not to like?! And I chose to write about this boom today largely because my 6 year old found it yesterday and was playing around with it yesterday by himself.

The volume on the book is fairly low, which is great when listening to it at home. However, if you are using this as a resource in a group setting it only works on a one to one basis or very small group basis. I tried using this in a larger group setting once and it just did not work as it was too quiet to grab the children’s attention. One on one, though, it is a lovely guide to the sounds that different instruments make. I would highly recommend it.

And here it is in action with a couple of the pages in the book: