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.

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.

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.

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 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:

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: Baby’s Bedtime Music Book

For today’s Music Book Review I have another lovely Usborne Books sound book, Baby’s Bedtime Music Book.

This is a lovely book to snuggle up with and read at bedtime just before sleep. It combines a little tale about the animals of Dreaming Valley getting ready for bed, settling in for the night and being serenaded by the owls of the valley who are playing beautiful lullabies to help their fellow animals drift off to sleep.

There are extracts from 5 different pieces of classical music included in the book with an easy to press and clearly labelled button on each page to hear the pieces. Even small children can press the button and get the music to play- there are some sound books where you have to press the button really hard to get any sound out of it at all and my children quickly give up with these books because they can’t get them to work by themselves. These books are different because they only need a light touch, and even at 2 my youngest was able to get the book to play for herself.

There is an on/off switch at the back of the book so that you don’t waste the battery and you can turn it off when you have had enough of the pieces! There are only 5 short extracts after all.

I won’t play them all here, but here is the cover page in action with an extract from Brahm’s Lullaby:

Concerts and Events

Concert Review: B’Opera Relaxed Concert, Teddy Bear’s Picnic

Concert: B’Opera Relaxed Concert Teddy Bear’s Picnic

When: Saturday 27 June 2020 10:30

Where: via Crowdcast

Our experience: a lovely, interactive concert for pre-school children introducing classical music and opera to our little people.

For 2020 I had booked us up to see quite a few concerts. We went to see Peppa Pig: My First Concert, read my review of this show here, and a fabulous concert from the Notelets series at the CBSO centre in March, and you can read about it here. It feels like that was about 6 million years ago now! We had several other concerts booked as well, and were looking forward to a year of regular live entertainment. Of course we now do not anticipate being able to go to see any of those concerts this year, very sadly. So I was delighted to see that the Birmingham based organisation B’Opera were doing one of their relaxed concerts online last week. It was on the theme of a Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

I have taken my daughter to one of B’Opera’s live relaxed concerts before at St George’s Church in Edgbaston, just over a year ago and was very impressed with the concert. We had been to a concert run by a different organisation and that had been billed as a concert where small children were absolutely welcome, in fact the concert was for the children and their grown ups, but I had not been impressed with this other organisation’s concert. It felt like it was a concert for the parents where their small children were tolerated rather than being aimed at the children. B’Opera’s relaxed concert was entirely different. It was a concert that was genuinely for the children who attended. It was for adults to bring their small children along to introduce them to music, not just nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes were included in the performance, as something familiar for the children, but there were many other songs in the concert as well. I left the concert feeling that this was an organisation that really understood how to put on a concert for small children and babies, and no wonder because they held music classes for babies and small children at Birmingham Hippodrome every week (owing to the coronavirus pandemic these classes are online at the moment).

Booking tickets and accessing the concert

I was really looking forward to watching this concert with my children. The relaxed concert on Saturday morning took place at 10.30 and lasted for about an hour. It cost £7.50 for a ticket and was broadcast on the service Crowdcast. There is an iOA app for Apple users, a website if watching on a laptop, and probably also an Android app. It was very easy to access crowdcast once tickets had been purchased, although I had not downloaded the app until just before the start of the concert, so we ended up watching the concert on my iPad via the website. I think that the experience would have been better if I had managed to get the app downloaded in advance of the concert so that we could have used that for the concert.

The live concerts are very interactive and online Zoe Challenor and Jacqueline White, who are professional musicians and who run B’Opera, added in as many interactive elements as they could. There was a chat function on the crowdcast app, and Zoe and Jacqueline answered as many comments as they could onscreen. One of the B’Opera team, Aliyah was also answering comments on the onscreen chat as they happened, but we could not see them – technical limitations of, well, me I’m afraid as I could not work out how to get the chat box up on the website without messing around and I didn’t want to do that while the concert was ongoing!

Interactive concert

There were several games played during the concert, like Peekaboo with scarves that my children quite enjoyed, and a game of fruit snap. At the end of the concert I asked the children what they had enjoyed most about it and my 3 year old said “me like fruit game”! There were also some lovely touches, like cakes being passed and water glasses filled up between Zoe and Jacqueline.

Programme

The programme was picnic and summer themed. There were a mix of live performances and pre-recorded songs, the pre-records being performances by the pianist Phil Ypres-Smith who would usually be performing at the relaxed concerts, and a duet between Jacqueline and Zoe. The concert started with Debussy’s song about mandolin players, Mandoline, and included songs like Fleurs by Poulenc (Flowers), the Flower Duet from the opera Lakme by Delibes, and Where the Bee Sucks, There Lurk I by Thomas Arne. All songs about things you would see or experience if you were on a picnic. There were two fun songs by composer Jenny Gould performed towards the end of the concert as well including My Face is Made of Funnions. The concert ended with a rendition of, of course, Teddy Bear’s picnic and requests for favourite nursery rhymes were taken and performed.

Experience of watching concert online

What I really like about B’Opera’s concerts is that they strike a really good balance between children’s songs and traditional, familiar nursery rhymes and other classical music, proper arias from opera that are not at all dumbed down. Zoe and Jacqueline give the children attending their concerts the chance to listen to, to experience all sorts of music, more complex, “difficult”, less familiar music for them is included, and so children have the opportunity to become familiar with lots of different music.

It is far easier to keep children’s attention in person, and my two did not concentrate very well at all for this online concert – they were at home, my son could feel the pull of his lego upstairs, my daughter just wanted to play babies, and so they did not take in as much of the concert as I think they would have done if we had attended in person. I think that the concert, at one hour, was maybe a little too long. That may be because my two are at school and nursery so we don’t attend the weekly First Songs classes that B’Opera are offering at the moment, or it may just be my children, especially my 3 year old who absolutely cannot stay still for even 2 minutes at a time! For us I think the concert could have been shorter. However, this is not in any way a reflection of B’Opera, it is the circumstances we are in, that we cannot attend concerts in person at the moment. On the other hand, with the cost of the concert, as just one ticket is purchased for an online concert rather than paying for 4 people to attend, then it is easier and more affordable to take a chance on an online concert. If the children don’t enjoy it, or are not in the right mood to watch it on that particular day, then you have not spent as much money as you would buying separate tickets for the whole family. B’Opera also leave the concert available on crowdcast for a week at no additional cost, so you can watch it at any time or as many times as you like during that week. This is brilliant for people with small children as they love to watch things over and over again, and as mentioned above sometimes they are just not in the mood right then and there to watch a concert just because Mummy says it is time!

All in all, this was a really good concert, a lovely thing to do on a Saturday morning, and felt like a step towards normality, that we could go to a concert even though we were still at home. The arts in general, and organisations that are reliant on singing in particular, are really struggling at the moment with social distancing requirements, so I would urge you if you are at all tempted to try something like this out to do it and support these organisations like B’Opera so they are available still for live concerts when all of this is over and we can gather to enjoy music together.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: My Favourite Things

After the rain and storms of the last few days, I ended up reading and singing this book with my children. This book is basically a write up of the words to the song of the same name from the musical The Sound of Music.

I found this book on one of my previous visits to Foyles with my little girl. She was busy playing with the train set there and I had time to browse the shelves. When I was a girl myself I loved The Sound of Music, I still do to be honest! The songs have stayed with me my whole life and I often find myself singing them to the children, especially this one, the fun High on a Hill Lived a Lonely Goatherd and Doh a Deer. So when I saw this book I had to get it for the children.

The song is all about when something bad or scary happens, think of nice things and it will make you feel better. For anyone who doesn’t know the song or musical, the reference to the storms of last week is because in the film there is a thunderstorm. All the children of the house run in to the nanny Maria’s bedroom because they are scared of the storm. She talks to them a little about the storm and then they sing this song together and all feel better about it by the end of it.

When the dog bites,

When the bee stings.

When I’m feeling sad,

I simply remember my favourite thibgs

And then I don’t feel so bad

The book is illustrated by Daniel Roode, each page showing a different line from the song.

The book could be read through, and is a board book so is easy for small hands to turn the pages by themselves, or sung through. The illustrations capture the song beautifully so even your little ones who don’t read words yet, can read and understand the story for themselves. Inevitably I can’t help myself and sing the book to them, and lately my eldest especially has started to sing it to himself and to my youngest too. It’s really lovely watching them read it and sing it together.

Playlists

Counting songs

Music is fantastic for learning. As a student I would often struggle to remember texts I was supposed to learn, and would absolutely not be able to tell you about any of the stuff I learned today; but song lyrics I heard in my teenage years, even younger, can flood back in an instant as soon as I hear the music. For young children, too, music can help them learn things far quicker than many other methods. So for today, here are 9 songs to help your little ones learn to count.

There are a number of similar features with them all. They are all nursery rhymes, or songs for children. They are all very repetitive – that is how children learn, they become more and more familiar with the musical, rhythmic and lyric patterns they hear and that is how the information is learned. It is all about the repetition. So even if it drives you absolutely mad, keep playing and singing these songs with your children and they will be counting away before you know it. Maybe backwards, but it still counts!

Each of these songs I have sung with my children, often while they are in the bath – many of the songs have an aquatic theme anyway. The children now sing them back to us regularly. They are both very good with numbers, and while I know in my heart of hearts that it is largely Numberblocks on CBeebies that has developed their mathematical abilities, I do think that these songs helped build the foundations of that interest they have in numbers.

1 2 3 4 5 Once I caught a fish alive

A song about a fish who grabs hold of a finger, and sneaks in practice at counting from 1-5 and 6-10.

5 Little Speckled Frogs

This song is about frogs sat on a log who eat delicious grubs before they jump into a pool. Full of lovely rhyming words that develop their language skills as well as a countdown from 5-1, the first verse starts with 5 frogs, the second with 4 etc through to there being just one frog left on the log.

10 Green Bottles

10 Green Bottles is actually a great song to sing in the bath. We would line toys up along the side of the bath and when each bottle accidentally fell, a toy would be pushed into the bath accompanied by squeals of delight. It quickly became a favourite bath time song.

5 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed

This song works in a similar way to the 5 Little Speckled Frogs, but with the added joy of involving jumping on the bed. So of course my own little cheeky monkeys love to sing this song while jumping on, and off, the bed!

10 Fat Sausages

Sausages sizzling in a pan, one goes pop and the other goes down. In this song you learn counting down in twos, and there are some fun sound effects that little children love – each time a sausage goes pop I make a popping sound with my cheek, and then clap my hands for the bang sound. very small children can join in at least with the clapping sounds, and they hear you counting down the sausages from 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 then no fat sausages.

1-2 Knock on my Shoe

There are lots of lovely rhyming words in this children’s song that I remember singing with my mum. There is plenty of scope to join in with actions to the song.

The Ants Go Marching

Counting and marching around the room in this song, so you can get some counting practice in and get your little ones to burn off some energy! What is not to like!

5 Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day

Another song that is perfect for bath time, this time playing with rubber ducks. It is a song that, in addition to offering some counting and number practice, can help your little ones develop the concept of object permanence as you can hide the rubber ducks behind yours or their backs when they go off swimming and one doesn’t return at the end of each verse, and then bring them all out from their hiding place at the end of the song.

There Were 10 in the Bed and the Little One Said

Another song in the tradition of 10 Green Bottles, you count down from 10-1 as you go through the song. Again the song lends itself to fun action as you roll your child over singing this song getting them to play the role of the Little One.

Learning a Musical Instrument

Ukulele challenge week 1

We have done the first week of our ukulele challenge, how have we got on?

My son, who is in Year 1, went back to school last week which is why I thought it was a good time to start this challenge- we had to start a new after school routine anyway with needing to make sure the children changed their clothing as soon as they got home etc. That said, it was his first week back at school after several months at home so I was expecting him to be utterly exhausted when he got back, and didn’t want to push it too much.

Last week we managed only two nights of ukulele practice as a result, and as we had my husband’s birthday and Father’s Day this weekend the poor ukulele stayed on its hook then as well. So far this week, though, we have played both nights and I plan to get him to practice again tonight.

My boy has, however, told me both nights this week that he doesn’t want to play ukulele or guitar any more, he wants to play flute (I am a flautist), or piano (we started that last year and it didn’t go too well, so we’ll try piano again once he is more used to playing), even beat boxing! Basically anything new rather than sticking to the instrument I am getting him to play every day!

Undeterred, because I think he will be pleased once he can easily pick up an instrument and play it, and I think it is good to teach him the discipline of practice, we have made some steady progress this week. He is now holding the instrument correctly so that when playing the chords he lets each string sound, whereas before he held it quite flat on his lap and trapped some of the strings, preventing them from sounding. And he has learned the chords of C, A and F.

I am combining teaching my son how to play chords on the ukulele with teaching him some basic music theory- right now I am getting him to practice very simple chord progressions and getting him to change chord on the beat while counting 1,2,3,4 (the pulse) out loud. We have played a fun game of shouting out the number 1 and saying the rest of the numbers more quietly, learning about placing emphasis on the first beat of the bar, and then shouting out the number 1 at the same time as playing the chord.

Yesterday, I got him to strum the chord on the 1st and 3rd beats, again while counting out loud, more practice at feeling the pulse in music, learning that there are stronger and weaker beats in a bar and how to keep playing in time.

As we continue this week I want to add in one more chord, G7, and get to a position where we can strum the chord on every beat of the bar. The plan is that once he has learned how to do that I can teach him how to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

It is lucky that in our situation I can sit down with him to do this every night because that gives him the direction he needs and stops him from getting distracted when he should be practising-something that is so very easy for young children especially. As a child I started learning to play the violin around my son’s age, but never practised so gave up. Then the guitar but never practised, then gave up. Then the flute but rarely practised at first and nearly gave up, and then something changed and flute playing clicked for me.

As a child I wanted to be able to pick up an instrument and play. I’ll be honest, I was a dramatic little girl who wanted to be an actor and I wanted to be able to play something and get applause from my audience -my poor parents!- straight away but of course I lacked the discipline to put in the work. So hopefully by doing this with my son in these early years that discipline will become second nature to him far sooner than it did for me, and he will see the results of putting the time into practising.

That’s the plan anyway!

Themed Music

9 Songs for Summer

It was the longest day last weekend, and so I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you some of my favourite songs about Summer as it is now, officially, the summer.

Summer Is Icummen In

A traditional, mid-13th century song that is written in the Wessex dialect of middle English. The title of the song means “Summer has arrived”. It is a round, which means that it can be sung by two or more voices. One voice will start the melody line and a second voice will come in singing the same melody line, often at the end of the first bar or phrase. This song reminds me of being at school as it is something I sang with my school choir many years ago. Like many summer songs it is joyful and has a lot of energy in it.

Summertime by George Gershwin

Summertime was originally composed by George Gershwin for the opera Porgy and Bess but has since become a jazz standard in its own right. This song has been recorded thousands of times, the first time it was featured in the American pop charts it was sung by Billie Holliday and here is her version of the song for you to have a listen to:

In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry

Something of a change of pace from the previous two songs, this song from 1970 celebrates the carefree nature of summer days. Ray Dorset, of Mungo Jerry, has said that the song only took him 10 minutes to write!

Surfin USA by Beach boys

No Summertime playlist would be complete without a song by the Beach Boys I think. Maybe because I am a child of the 70s/80s, and these songs all remind me so much of listening to them in the summer. They make me think of driving along in my parents car with the windows down and the wind in my face – sometimes having to close my eyes because the wind was too strong! The lyrics are, of course, about surfing which helps with the summer association for me, but the sound of the music is very upbeat, joyful, lively, everything you associate with carefree summer days.

The Sun Has Got His Hat On by Noel Gay and Ralph Butter

This is a very well known children’s song, known mainly for its first verse:

The sun has got his hat on

Hip, hip, hip hooray.

The sun has got his hat on

And he’s coming out to play.

However, this song has had a difficult history with the second verse using the ‘n’ word, so when looking to play this song for your children, avoid original versions of the song that contain this offensive word.

“Summer” from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi

The Four Seasons was written by Antonio Vivaldi as a set of 4 Violin concerti, each having its own seasonally inspired theme. The music is very descriptive, Vivaldi using the music to paint a picture. This is a great piece of music to listen to with your little ones and ask them to paint or draw a picture inspired by the music, or describe to you what the music makes them think of. When Vivaldi published these concerti, he wrote a set of sonnets, or programme notes really, which described what he was trying to do with each concerto, what he intended the listener to hear in his music.

Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Mendelssohn

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy written by William Shakespeare in the late 1500s. It tells the story of events that occurred on a midsummer’s night. There are different subplots in the play – one about the love lives of 4 young people, one about a group of amateur actors putting on a play, and one about the love life of the King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania. In 1826, at the age of just 17 years, Mendelssohn wrote the stand alone piece, the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, intended as a concert overture and not associated with any play. It is a piece of programme music, much like the Four Seasons, in that it tells the story through the music. At one point, you can hear the braying of a donkey (one of the amateur actors in the play is turned into a donkey, for those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s play.) Here you can hear the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performing this work.

Concerto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo

The Concerto de Aranjuez was written in 1939 by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo for guitar and orchestra. It was inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez. Rodrigo did not actually play the guitar himself, but this is probably one of the best known pieces of music written for guitar and orchestra. Here is the second movement, the most instantly recognisable, and one that for me instantly evokes the idea of summer and hot, balmy days.

Prelude de l’apres-midi d’un faune by Debussy

Firstly I should say here, that I have not yet worked out how on earth to add the correct accents to my text, so I am missing the correct accents in the title here. I will work that out one day! This piece of music is a symphonic poem for orchestra. Symphonic poems were pieces of orchestral music written in one continuous movement, rather than broken up into several movements. They were written, again like The Four Seasons, and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream above, to paint a picture of the subject matter of the music. This work was based on a poem of the same title by Stephane Mallarme. It is a slow, dreamy piece of music.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: Usborne Peep Inside a Fairy Tale – The Nutcracker

Usborne Books have published a series of books – Peep Inside a Fairy Tale. These books tell the story of famous fairy tales, like The Nutcracker, simply for young children. They are all beautifully illustrated. As they are peep inside books there are little windows throughout the book where you can see through onto other pages, giving hints of what is on the next page, They use doorways, or snowflakes, or little mouse holes to give these little hints of what is on different pages.

The Nutcracker is the story of two children Fritz and Clara playing with their new Christmas presents under the Christmas Tree. Clara’s favourite toy is the Nutcracker, who could crack real nuts with his teeth. She carries on playing with her Nutcracker toy late into the night, and at the stroke of midnight she shrinks to the size of a doll, meets the Nutcracker and they have a series of adventures together.

The Nutcracker has been told countless times, and when I was a child I remember going to see Tchaikovsky’s ballet of The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome, and watching it in the Disney film Fantastia. In my memory (though a child’s memory can be fallible) the Nutcracker ballet was on in the theatre every year. It was a feature of every Christmas, much like The Wizard of Oz, or Sound of Music being on every Easter.

This is a really nice version of the story. As mentioned above it is simply written for younger readers, the illustrations are great and tell the story as much as the prose. It is a lift the flap book as well, which again is always a hit with younger children, something that they can do for themselves, and something they can discover for themselves. It is a great introduction to the story, lovely to read at Christmas – or year round frankly; my children seem to like Christmas stories best in May or June!! – and when we are able to go back to the theatre together, this would be a very good introduction for children before they go to see the ballet for the first time.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: First Book about the Orchestra

I bought this book for my little girl about a year or so ago. She was just over 2 at the time and she really liked just turning pages over. She also LOVED a noisy book, anything with buttons to press! Most of the noisy books in the house at the time had been bought originally for my eldest and he loved to remind her that they were bought for him, so I wanted to get her a noisy book of her very own.

In those days, you know before a global pandemic hit us and you could vary your days with little ones by taking them out of the house, and even to the shops, we liked to go to Foyles in Birmingham. I have taken both of my children there because there is a lovely children’s department that has (had?) a Brio train set for the children to play with while you were browsing. So we went quite regularly. I saw this book there and loved it.

Happily my little girl has also loved this book, and it has proven to be a great book for her to look at independently as well.

Published by Usborne Books, this is a guide to the orchestra. The book goes through the different sections of the orchestra – strings, woodwind, brass, even timpani (large tuned drums), and plays Hungarian Dance no 5 by Brahms. Showing children what those instruments sound like. At the end of the book the whole orchestra is brought together to play a short excerpt of. And the role of the conductor is briefly explained.

There is a round button, clearly marked, on each page to press to play the music, and this is easy even for small hands to press – we have had some noisy books in the past where you have had to press really very hard to get any sound to come out, and the book has quickly been abandoned.

Best of all, because we all know that noisy books can very quickly become a pain, there is an on/off switch at the back of the book for when it just gets a bit too much!

It is a lovely book that I would highly recommend, and a nice way to start introducing orchestral music and the instruments of the orchestra to very young children. Here it is in action:

Learning a Musical Instrument

Ukelele Challenge

Ukelele is a great first instrument for children to learn. It is small, so a good size for small hands, it has 4 strings, so is not overly complicated, it is quite easy to play, and you only have to learn a few chords before you can start to play tunes you know and like. So children can very quickly get into playing “proper music” rather than getting stuck in trying to make a nice sound. They realise they can actually make music themselves, and hopefully then get the bug for learning an instrument before moving on to an instrument that takes more work to master.

Now, of course, as with any instrument, it takes a lot of practice to play ukelele well, and there is so much you can do with it, but it is a great instrument to start developing your child’s interest in creating music for themselves.

I had intended to get my son to learn through the lockdown, but with both children at home all day, and my son getting the majority of the homeschooling attention, my daughter was not having it when I tried to spend time with my son on this.

They have now gone back to school/nursery for a few weeks (who knows how long it will last for), so I have started a new post-school routine with them. We get home and have a bath straight away, and then my son does 10 minutes ukelele practice/playing before he is allowed to play or watch TV.

The new routine started yesterday, and we were practising chord changes from C to F, and a few rhythm games to get him to do the chord changes in time. I am hoping that with 10 minutes every day we will get into a good routine, so that we continue over the summer. If we manage this challenge then he will be playing lots of lovely songs by the end of the summer!

I shall update you on how he gets on with this challenge.

Music at home

It’s Oh So Quiet

A quick little post from me this morning.

My children have gone back to nursery/school this morning and the house is so very quiet without them! There have been times over this last 3 months when I have longed for some time alone, a break from the amazing amount of noise they can make, a little freedom to do the things I needed to do. Now I have it, for however long it lasts and who knows how long that will be, and I feel a little lost in the silence. No fights to referee, no bumps to kiss better, no one squiggling about on my lap, no one to cajole and plead with to do their school work, pleeeasse!

3 pieces of music popped into my head as I was doing the vacuuming (I may be trying to slightly reclaim the house for a bit) and I wanted to share them with you today:

It’s Oh So Quiet- Bjork

This song from Bjork that was released in the mid 1990s was one of my favourites way back when. It’s about falling in love of course, but the lyrics are so apt. And the music is so apt for how I feel at the moment as well. It is oh so very quiet here, and when the children return this afternoon they will arrive in a burst of shouts and singing and fighting until bedtime.

The Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

I’m going for literal this morning, just because of the shock of the quiet house after 3 months of almost continual noise. So of course one of the songs that popped into my head this morning had to be Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence

4’ 33’– John Cage

4 minutes 33 by John Cage is apiece of experimental music. It was composed for any combination of instruments with the score telling the musicians not to play their instruments at all throughout the 3 movement piece that lasts under 5 minutes. It is a piece of music that aims to challenge what we know of as music- is music a melody, is it a collection of notes, is it the absence of sound, can music be found in the sounds around us in the absence of distractions.

Homemade Instruments · Music at home

Making a DIY hand drum

We made these drums just before half term (which was last week here in Birmingham, UK) on a Saturday morning. I was trying to tempt the children away from the iPad and using screens, and hadn’t yet got them out of their pyjamas – well it’s not like we had anywhere to go to! This was a nice activity that kept them busy for about 20 minutes, decorating and sticking stuff onto their paper and cardboard. As I wanted nice, clean cardboard circles for the drums, I did prepare the circles in advance, but if you are not too bothered about them being exact, it would be great fine motor (pre-writing) scissor skills practice for your children. If I had just my 5 year old with me, I may have been tempted to get him to cut the shapes out for this activity himself.

So, what do you need to make this drum?

  • Some cardboard
  • Some paper
  • A compass, or something round to draw around, we used a roll of masking tape
  • Scissors
  • A pencil
  • A couple of beads
  • Some yarn or string (only a very small amount)
  • Pens, washi tape, stickers, anything you want to use to decorate your drum
  • 1 straw for each drum
  • Glue. We used Pritt stick, but you could use PVA glue, or even hot glue if you are not doing this alongside your children. Mine were helping with the assembly of the drums so I wanted to use something they could both easily use by themselves
  • Hot glue gun (optional)

First of all, I drew around my masking tape roll. You need 2 of these for each drum you make. I made 4 circles because I was making 2 drums, one for each of the children. I then cut out 4 same size circles out of paper.

Once I had my circles all ready, I called the children in to help me put them together. My son had decided he had had enough of helping mummy making these instruments, and definitely did not want to be doing this. He really wanted to be playing on the iPad to be honest and I had said no, so he wasn’t best pleased with me at that moment in time. However, as soon as he saw glue and pens out and realised I was asking him to make something fun he changed his mind.

The children used Pritt Stick to stick the paper circles onto the cardboard circles. My son used felt pens to draw a star on either side of his drum, and my daughter used washi tape to decorate her circles. Interestingly, when we started making things with washi tape astound christmas my daughter, who was 2 at the time, would peel off as much tape as she could and stick it mostly to the table, rather than the paper or card we were using. I noticed with this task that she was much more purposeful with putting the right size tape onto the paper and trying to smooth it flat. She was starting to make much more conscious design decisions than haphazardly placing the tape as she had done only a few months earlier.

While the children were decorating their drums I cut 2 pieces of yarn. I cut about 4 inches. The yarn or string needs to be around 2 inches or more longer than the diameter of your cardboard circle. It will lie across your circle, so that there are 2 lengths of yarn either side that are roughly the same length. This is easiest illustrated with a picture I think!

The children chose 2 beads each, and we threaded them onto each side of the yarn.

Next we got a straw, 1 for each drum and flattened the top of it and folded it over slightly. This is the end of the straw that will be sandwiched between the 2 halves of the drum.

To make up each drum, we took 2 circles, liberally glued one half (I used hot glue, so didn’t let the children do this, so the drum would hold together better) and placed the yarn onto the glued circle together with the flattened and folded straw.

I then placed the other half on top, covering the first circle. Then as our beads kept trying to escape from the yarn (thicker yarn or beads with smaller holes, or even better knot tying would possibly resolve this!), I tried to put a little blob of hot glue on either end of the yarn to keep the bead from escaping. I did not do a very good job with this, and got in a bit of a mess with it!

To play the drum, your children (or you) will need to hold the straw in between their palms with the cardboard at the top. They with then twirl the straw around in their palms so that the beads hit the cardboard and make a noise. It is another nice, quiet instrument, but lots of fun. My children have had it out several time since making it. I mentioned above that I didn’t do a great job first time with the hot glue on the end of the yarn – so much so that one of the beads flew off the yarn the first time, so be generous with the glue if you are using it, or tie several really large knots in the yarn/string!!

Music at home

Music and Mental Health (and a little bit of lockdown

I am writing this on the 9th week of the UK lockdown from the Covid-19 pandemic. It is my family’s 10th week of being at home as my daughter had a cold the week before it all began, so we self-isolated from then. If you had told me this time last year that we would be at home 99.99% of the time for 10 weeks I would not have believed you, and at the start of all of this I was quite horrified at the thought that this would continue as long as it has. But here we are!

I think everyone’s mental health is taking a bit of a battering at the moment. This situation is not easy for anyone. We are very lucky in so many ways. My husband is still working so we are not panicked about money – although he does not have as much work as he did before this all started. I have been furloughed from my job so am not working, so don’t have the problems of balancing work and the children that many people have. My children are of an age that I am not actually worried about the effect of a time away from school will have on their education, and we are lucky that my husband and I have both taught so can help them with their school work, when that old adage of familiarity breeding contempt is not at play (it is EVERY DAY!) We are so lucky so have a nice little garden that we can use every day. While we do not have a massive house, we have enough room to house 4 of us. We are all largely getting on. We are very lucky.

However, even for us it is not easy. My children are nearly 6 (in 2 weeks), and 3. They are lively, and despite our best efforts my son in particular is not quite getting enough stimulation. Our school have been setting plenty of work – more than we can do. For my son (the 5 year old) it has been very hard to concentrate at home. His sister does not have any school work (of course not, she is 3), and it always looks as though she has the more fun option of playing. He cannot get on with any of the school work on his own and without adult encouragement to do it, with the exception of maths which is lovely and easy – but not challenging him at the moment – and has to be cajoled into doing anything. We are doing the bare minimum of the work set by the school with him really, far less than he is capable of and that he does at school and even that can take hours to complete. Thankfully we have plenty of things to do at home and both my husband and I come up with a lot of things we can do with both children.

My daughter feels that my son gets more attention than her because we are helping him with school work and she has to wait for attention at times. She is 3, she does not understand why she can’t have our attention much more than she does. We have also been trying to potty train her thinking that we were at home so why not? It feels like no progress is being made with that. She has good days and bad days, and we cannot escape the accidents and the enormous piles of washing we have to do. It is dispiriting.

My husband has the pressure of having to keep working to feed us and pay our mortgage. He falls through all the cracks of the financial help available. He is getting less work than he used to, and he also has the pressure that he relieves me from being with the children for a couple of hours every day so I can have a break and do something else.

Before all of this started I had almost completed one year of being back at work leading music classes for babies/toddlers and their carers, and 3-4 years olds. I loved teaching them. While I have not yet been told that my job no longer exists, I cannot see how I can keep it once the furlough scheme has ended. I am sure my boss wants to keep us all on, but I just don’t see how she can.

The children are bloody hard work, being with them all the time. And they are our saving grace as well. They keep us busy. We are absolutely not bored. But we are very tired, and my god life can be frustrating with two small children!

There is a lot of pressure on everyone at the moment. I don’t think anyone is having an easy ride, and everyone’s struggles are the same and very different. We did not have a good day today. School work was incredibly slow, both children burst into tears a lot when we didn’t give them what they wanted (chocolate largely), and my daughter had 3 accidents in quick succession. I tried to rescue the day by taking some painting outside in the garden, which lasted for all of 5 minutes during which time my daughter threw paper all over the garden (the wind had caught one piece and she thought it was funny so wanted to recreate it), my son decided to try painting the flowers while I was collecting up the paper, and they while I was cleaning everything up they both tipped entire washing up bowl of water all over the Tuff Tray and garden. They were soaked, I was soaked and everything I had already cleared up was now covered in painty water!

So when the dust settled my husband took them out to the park for an hour while I stayed home waiting for our shopping. I put on my guilty pleasure music quite loud and sang away. Helped enormously I can tell you. Music has a profound effect on mental health. The other day on my instagram I shared the following quote from opera singer and neuroscientist Indre Viskontas:

Listening to music lets us work through our emotions in a safe environment and walk away if the feelings get too intense.

The quote goes on to say:

[Music] provides a lens through which we can examine our lives.

I think this is so important and relevant right now. We can’t use many of our usual outlets – we can’t drop the children off at their grandparents to have a well deserved break from them and them from us (it cuts both ways!). We can’t go to the gym or the pub or see friends to let off steam. But we could put some music on, and I always find that my guilty pleasure music is best served loud and sung along to at the top of my voice. It’s fun, the endorphins released by singing start flowing, I exercise my lungs, get more oxygen flowing around my body, and my mood is lifted. My children have a happier and far less frustrated mummy!

This is not me, but it’s like the photographer was there with me this afternoon…..