Instrument spotlight · Instrumental Facts

Interesting facts about the piano you should know

You will have heard loads and loads of music played on the piano. You may play it yourself or have children in your house learning to play, but how much do you actually know about this splendid instrument? Well, here are 18 facts about the piano that you might find interesting.

  • The piano was invented in Italy in 1709 by Francesco Cristofori.
  • One of the pianos made by Cristofori is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • The full name of the piano is pianoforte from the Italian words piano meaning soft, and forte meaning loud.
  • The piano got its name because it can play music both quietly and loud, previously keyboard instruments could not do this.
  • The piano can be considered as both a string and a percussion instrument.
  • When you press a note on the piano, a hammer will hit the strings inside the piano’s casing to make a note.
  • Piano strings are usually made from steel and each string holds about 170 pounds of tension.
  • There are approximately 230 strings in a standard piano.
  • Piano keys used to be made from ivory, but have been made out of plastic since the 1940’s.
  • Musicians talk about “middle C”, but the exact middle of a piano keyboard is between the E and F keys above middle C.
  • The left pedal of the 2 foot pedals on a piano is a damper pedal. It works by moving the hammer closer to the string so it can’t hit the string as hard, and will make a quieter sound.
  • The right pedal of the 2 foot pedals on a piano is a sustain pedal. It works by removing the dampers from the strings so that the string continues to sound after the key has been pressed and let go.
  • The piano has a huge range of notes that it can play, a range to rival any orchestra.
  • The piano’s lowest note is the same as the lowest note on a double-bassoon.
  • The piano’s highest note is the same as the highest note on a piccolo.
  • The world’s most expensive piano is one made out of crystal by Canadian piano makers Heintsman & Co. It is worth $3,220,000
  • The world’s smallest piano was made by video game makers Sega. It is just 25cm wide. It is a playable piano, but the keys are absolutely tiny!
  • The world’s largest piano is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as measuring 8ft 2in wide, 19ft 10in long and 6ft 3in high. It was made by Daniel Czapiewski and was actually played in a concert at Szymbark in Poland on 30 December 2010.

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

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

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: Wheels on the Bus from Cocomelon

You will almost certainly have heard of Cocomelon if you have a child under 5, as they have been all over YouTube for a long time. We have been watching Cocomelon songs on YouTube for years. In fact, I have linked to several Cocomelon songs on my playlists in the past.

I like Cocomelon videos for my children because they are animated versions of children’s nursery rhymes. They largely use the tune and words that I know and sing with the children, and they aren’t too annoying. Now my children are older and it’s all about Ryan, Lol Surprise dolls and Minecraft, I almost miss the time when they could watch Cocomelon songs for ages while I made dinner, or just caught my breath. Even though at the time, 5 or 10 minutes of it could feel like about 10 hours.

So when I saw that Cocomelon had released a picture book of one of my children’s favourite songs, The Wheels on the Bus, I couldn’t resist it.

This is a picture book for young readers. It is a board book, so stands up well to young children’s explorations. Young children are not necessarily the most gentle readers – everything goes into their mouths, books are dropped, pulled and sometimes chucked across a room or into boxes, so they need to be quite robust.

I would say that this is a book for babies and toddlers if you are reading it to them – it is literally the words of the song with illustrations, so there is not much to the book to interest older children unless they are starting to learn to read for themselves where this would be a good book for them. The words would be familiar, and simple for new readers to follow along and attempt to read for themselves.

I do like these song books. Children love singing along to their favourite songs, and their parents and caregivers singing songs with and for them. As far as babies and young children are concerned, their care givers’ voices are simply the most wonderful sounding voices in the world! They also love snuggling up together with their loved ones to read a book. So this book perfectly combines the two.

The illustrations in the book are taken directly from the YouTube (now CBeebies series as well) video for the same song. They show the actions taken in the video for each of the verses – rolling hands and wrists round each other, for the wheels on the bus going round and round, a mummy saying ssh, ssh, ssh and so on. There are some colourful musical notes decorating each page as well. It is a short, and brightly colourful book that will appeal to children and they will really enjoy reading this book with you.

My only real gripe with the book, and it is simply because this is what is sung in the Cocomelon version of this song, is that each verse says that The wheels on the bus go round and round all through the town, instead of all day long. I am sure my children don’t care whether we sing either version of the son, they just like to sing it! And yes, we generally sing through the book rather than read it.

I bought this cute book from Amazon, and at the time of writing it costs £5.39. You can have a look for yourself by following this link.

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!!

Music Products Reviewed

Music Product Review: Kazoo that Tune game

I was having a bit of a browse on Amazon the other day looking for ideas for Christmas for my children (I know, far too early, but then there’s all this talk of supply chain shortages and my children’s expectations of Father Christmas getting them something they want), and I came across this game. I thought it looked fun and wanted to give it a go.

The game is called Kazoo that Tune, and the box contains everything you need to play the game. There is a set of 4 kazoos, a little sand timer to time your go in the game and a couple of sets of cards with song titles on them.

To play the game you play in teams of 2. One player from the team takes a card from the pile. On each card are two options of songs, one easier to play on the kazoo than the other. Players have a short time (as the timer runs out) to play the tune on the kazoo, and their team member has to guess what song they are playing before the timer runs out – it sounds easier than it is! The team with the most points wins the game.

I don’t know if you have ever played a kazoo, but they are very easy to play. You sort of hum down the kazoo rather than try to blow down it or anything.

So, we had a bit of a go with the family, but the game wasn’t really intended to play with a 4 and 7 year old. My husband and I played it later on after the children went to bed, and it was a fun game. We sort of felt like we were on Never Mind the Buzzcocks (am I giving my age away here?)

I bought Kazoo that Tune from Amazon, and at the time of writing this post it costs £9.10.

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!!

Music at home

Singing songs in rounds – a fun way to introduce harmony to your children

What is harmony?

In the dictionary, the term harmony is defined as

The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing affect.

Any piece of music has a melody – a main line within the music that you can identify as the main tune of the piece. And that melody can be separated out to be played by itself. A composer will add in other lines of music, other notes or phrases around the melody line, that make the music more interesting. These extra lines of music can make the piece more interesting, more beautiful, give it more depth.

If you have looked at TikTok, even in passing, recently you will probably have noticed that a lot of people are taking part in a harmony building challenge based on the Mika song Grace Kelly. People taking part in this challenge start singing the different lines of harmony from the song, adding one layer at a time until they end with the main melody of the song. Here’s one example:

https://vm.tiktok.com/ZM845dBTv/

When you are just starting out singing in harmony achieving something like the harmony building in the Grace Kelly song can be quite difficult. There are lots of different tunes to learn to sing, and it is hard to learn how to hear the different parts and continue singing your own tune without becoming distracted.

Well, learning to sing songs in rounds can help to start you off on learning to sing in harmony.

What are songs in rounds?

Rounds are simple songs, often songs you already know very well. They are short and repetitive, and they use just one melody. Everyone singing a round will sing exactly the same thing, so there is just one tune to learn. Hurrah!

To make it into a round you need more than one person (it can be as many people as you like), and one person will start singing the song and the next person to join in will start singing the exact same song as the first person reaches the end of a phrase, or line of the song.

So how do I do this?

To demonstrate how to sing in a round, I will use a very simple song, Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Firstly you need to learn the tune for the song:

So, the first person will start singing the words

Row, row, row your boat

Person 2 will start singing at the end of this first phrase with exactly the same words and melody. Both people will continue singing to the end of the song. If we wrote down what they were singing and when, it might look a bit like this:

It might sound a bit like this:

And you can add in more people, singing the same melody and words, as many as you like. You can keep going with the song as long as you like. It is entirely up to you. Your singing doesn’t have to be perfect (as you can tell from my excerpt), you don’t have to be entirely in sync with each other. The only thing that matters is that you have a go, and enjoy yourselves singing together!

I have given you one option as to where, but in this piece there are actually up to 4 places that people can join into the round. It might sound a bit like this:

Give me some examples

So, what songs can you sing as a round? Obviously Row, Row, Row Your Boat as you can see from the examples above. But there are some other really simple children’s songs you can try as well.

London’s Burning
Frere Jacques

Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree, The Farmer In The Dell and Three Blind Mice work very well too; and there are lots of other songs that lend themselves to being sung in rounds, but give these ones a go with your family first. You will be feeling like the Von Trapp family in no time at all!

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!!

Learning a Musical Instrument

About practice

Music practice is absolutely crucial so that children can go from being an absolute beginner on an instrument to becoming a musician. Getting your children to practice can be really frustrating, and lead to a lot of battles between parents and their children.

So what can you do as a parent to support and encourage your children to practice, how involved do you need to get in your children’s practice, and why do they need to practice?

Why do you need to practice?

Playing a musical instrument is something that requires learning a lot of different skills:

  • They need to have the physical ability to play that instrument – so they need to learn how to actually get their instrument to make a sound; by pressing keys, using a bow, or blowing down or across their instrument. Often several of these physical skills are required to get a sound out of their instrument. Those physical skills need a lot of practice to develop.
  • They need to be able to listen to the music they play, to hear how their instrument sounds, to hear whether they are playing the correct notes with the correct tuning; if playing music with other people, they have to be able to listen carefully to everyone else they are playing with to know how their part fits in.
  • Children have to learn a new language – both the (often) Italian terms used in sheet music and the series of dots and squiggles on the set of 5 lines that is music notation.
  • They have to learn a lot of patience and perseverance. When you first start playing an instrument, it can be a bit dull – the pieces you play are very simple, maybe even just one or two notes at a time. It possibly doesn’t sound too nice (no, not thinking about the violin or recorder here at all!). It takes a long time to get to a point where your child can play something that sounds great. And it takes a lot of patience and perseverance to keep going with learning an instrument to get to the point where your music sounds great, or good, or even just not too bad.

When I was a child I absolutely loved performing. I loved to put on shows for my parents, relatives, frankly anyone who would put up with listening to me. I loved to play something or sing something for about 5 minutes then stand up, take a bow and wait for their rapturous applause.

Unfortunately, I did not like the practising side of things and so outside of sitting down to perform for my long suffering parents I hardly played in between lessons. I started taking violin lessons when I was about 5 – I am not a violinist. I moved on to guitar – I do not play guitar now. I moved on to flute and took lessons for several years. I was about to give up as I was still not practising or getting anywhere, when my teacher decided to put me in for my Grade 1 exam to see how I would do.

On the day of the flute exams my year had a school trip to the science museum and those of us who were doing our flute exams stayed behind in the school library to wait for our exams. There were about five of us, four doing Grade 1, and one doing her Grade 5 flute. The girl who was taking her Grade 5 decided to practice her sight reading for her exam by playing through all of our exam pieces that we had been working on for ages.

It dawned on me in that session watching a girl who had practiced and played more than I did, that she could play whatever she wanted of out pieces, that she had so many more options as to music she could play because she knew what she was doing. She could pick up any of the pieces and just play them. I went home and that night started practising properly for the first time and never looked back, more than making up for lost time in the next few years. Sometimes I wish I had come to this realization sooner, but mostly I am just glad that I came to it at all.

What are the benefits of music practice?

Music practice clearly helps your child develop their musical skills, but are there any other skills that learning an instrument can give them?

  • I mentioned at the start of this post that playing a musical instrument is a very physical activity. And so it stands to reason that practising helps your child develop physical skills – manual dexterity, that can help with things like drawing, or writing; learning how to recognise and play with the rhythm, or pulse of music, that can help with dancing, walking, games and PE, even with reading skills as language has a rhythm whether it is poetry or prose; playing wind and brass instruments or singing can help strengthen lungs.
  • As you see from my little anecdote above, the more you practice, the more music you can play, and the more fun you can have with music. You can find music that suits you, that you like listening to, that is fun to play. And music tends to get more interesting the better you can play – the more musical skills you have, the more choice you have over what to play.
  • Part of being a musician is learning to perform, and performance is a great thing for building a child’s self confidence. Performance doesn’t have to be a solo performance with everyone staring at one person, although it can be, but performing as a group can be hugely rewarding. Playing music with your friends can be a really fund, bonding, and brilliant experience. It can help build your child’s self esteem.
  • Playing with other children in orchestras or bands, or ensembles is great for learning skills such as turn taking, co-operation, listening skills, whilst also working on the physical skills involved in learning to play an instrument. It is also a lot of fun, and can help make learning a musical instrument seem so much more worthwhile.
  • Music is a very creative activity, whether performing a composer’s works, improvising (messing about?) or composing their own pieces. Music helps your child express themselves, express their emotions, or express their own point of view; it helps them find their own voice. Music can help with regulating your child’s emotions, both playing and listening to music and writing their own. And of course, the more your child practises, the more they understand music and can learn how to express themselves through music, or find solace in it when they need to.
  • Music can also be very precise. You have to learn how to use your breath or your fingers to make the right sound to be in tune. You have to count to know how many notes in a bar, to know where you are in the piece you are playing, to know how to play that piece, or to know where to play when playing in a band or orchestra. To play with other people (unless you are all improvising), you have to play exactly what is on the paper you are reading. Skills involved in mathematics and other analytical skills are developed when learning an instrument.
  • Music and playing a musical instrument is something that involves the whole of the brain. Children’s developing brains are highly benefitted by playing a musical instrument, helping their brains form new connections as they play and practice.
  • When your child gets into the habit of practising, they are learning how to be self motivated. They may be set certain tasks by their teacher, but they have to manage their time in between lessons to accomplish those tasks.
  • Above all, playing music can really help to deepen your child’s enjoyment of music. We are surrounded by music – on TV, on the radio, on the internet, when you are put on hold on the phone, in shops, everywhere. As they get older, children bond with their peers through their love of music, they start to push back against their parents and start finding their own interests often through the music they share with their friends rather than with their families. Having spent time playing and practising an instrument can deepen their love of music, and this will last them a lifetime.

Parents’ role in practice

So, what should you do, as a parent, to help your child with their practice and how involved should you get? If you are not a musician yourself, how on earth can you help with your child’s practice when you do not play an instrument?

The good news is that whether you have any musical experience or not yourself, you can be a very valuable support for your child, and you can help to support your child’s music practice. And there are some very easy ways that you can do this. Your level of involvement will vary depending on how old your child is, and what stage they have got to in their musical journey.

The first thing to do is to communicate with your child’s instrument teacher. Have a chat with them to find out what they expect from your child in terms of practice. Some teachers may say that they expect their students to practice every day/most days. Some may specify a length of time they expect students to practice for each time they practice. Some may not talk in terms of amount of time/days of the week they expect students to practice for, but may instead set specific goals. Find out what those expectations are, and then you and your child can work together to try to meet those expectations and find out if they work for you and your child as well. And talk to your child’s teacher if you find that you can’t absolutely meet their expectations, for example the teacher says your child needs to practice every day for 45 minutes, but you find that they can’t do that because of other after school activities/homework. Talk to them and you should be able to work it out together.

You can help your child develop the habit of practising. Help them to find a good time of the day or week to practice. The main thing with setting your child up so that they can practice well independently in the future is for it to become a habit, something they just always do. In our house, my son usually practises as soon as we get home. We drive home from school and he has a snack in the car on the way home. Our habit is to get in the door, take shoes and coats off and then I go into the kitchen to start getting books out ready for homework, and he goes straight to the piano while I am getting the books out. He knows that he has to do his practice and homework before he gets to watch TV or play video games, and he knows that he doesn’t have to do either homework or practice on a Friday. It has become part of our routine and is just what we do.

I mentioned above that some instrument teachers will suggest that their students need to practice for, say 30 minutes or 40 minutes a day, but some may not specify how long a student’s practice session should last for. How long your child will need to practice for will depend on many factors including how old they are (my 4 year old simply cannot sit still for as long as my 7 year old and so when she plays it is just for a few minutes at a time before she moves on to something else), what stage they are at with their studies, and what other pressures there are on their time. My son has after school clubs 3 days a week at the moment, and other school homework, and so he is practising for 10-15 minutes a day. In the absence of any other advice from your child’s teacher, then especially at the start of their musical studies (see above about forming the habit of practising), then it is better to play for a relatively short amount of time – 10,15 or 30 minutes say – every day, or most days, than it is to have one or two long practice sessions each week and little to no practice the rest of the week.

Don’t underestimate how much your child will value you being with them in the room, or close by, as they practice listening to them and showing an interest in their music. Find things you liked about the music they played, something like:

I loved how you played that piece both loud and quiet

I liked the section with the short, spiky notes

I can hear how much you enjoy playing that piece of music

I really liked that piece of music, Can you play it for me again?

Encourage and praise the effort they are putting into their practice. Tell them you are proud of them for working hard with their practice. Talk with them about how you can hear improvements in their playing. You don’t necessarily need to tell them that all of their playing sounds great or literally applaud your child’s practice session, as I often demanded from my parents, but if you praise the effort as much as, or more than, the results of their practice, then it will encourage your child to keep going. Especially while they are young. I haven’t yet hit the teenage years with my two, so I am sure my practice encouragement techniques will need to change at that stage!

With musicians, as with all arts, you often hear people talk about someone who is very good at playing an instrument, singing, composing etc as being very talented, a natural talent. It sounds like something that only a few blessed or gifted people can do. In truth, that very talented person may well have some natural ability, or affinity with music. They may enjoy it more than many people. But they will also have practised, practised, practised and practised some more. Practising the physical skills involved, spending time learning how to play loud and quiet, fast and slow, when to play strictly on the beat and when you can be a bit flexible with playing the notes exactly how they are written, these are all skills it takes time to learn.

The only way to become a musician, whether your aim is to become a professional musician, or just to be able to sit down and play something as a break from your other studies or work, it all needs practice. And the more your child practises, the more fun they will have with it, the more options they will have as to what to play, when to play and how serious or not they want their musical journey to be. It may even make learning some of the skills they need for other studies (like self-motivation or team work) easier for them in the long run.

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 Halilit Calypso Band set for babies over 6 months old

You have recently had a baby, and have read about how important music is for babies’ development (hint: music is an amazing activity for all areas of your baby’s development), and you like the idea of having a music box at home for your children to help themselves to. But where on earth do you start with the dizzying array of instruments to choose from? How do you know what instruments are safe for your very young children to play with?

The image above shows a box with Halitlit branding and marked Calypso Band. The box contains three musical instruments – a blue tambourine, a yellow bell, a green maraca. The box says the instruments are suitable for babies 6 months and older.

Well, the Halilit Calypso band is a great place to start!

This is a lovely set of instruments, a Baby Band in a Box if you like. They are nice, brightly coloured instruments that have perfect sized handles for small hands to hold. There are three instruments in this box:

  • A maraca – a green shaker with a chunky handle, played by shaking the maraca up and down or side to side. The maraca can be shaken fast or slow, a really lovely, audible and easily understandable way for children to start learning these concepts.
  • A bell – this bell is encased in a yellow ball and has a big handle for little hands to easily grip onto. Just like the maraca, it is played by shaking it up and down, or side to side.
  • A tambourine – this is the blue instrument in this set. A tambourine is made with zithers (metal discs), attached around the edges of a drum. On a standard tambourine these zithers can break off and become a choking hazard for small children. With the Halilit Calypso Band tambourine, however, the zithers are entirely encased (like the bell above) in a blue plastic case. The tambourine is thinner on the one side to help small children grip onto it and play it. Again this is an instrument that can be played by shaking it up and down, or side to side.
The image above shows the back of the Halilit box. There is a picture of a happy baby holding the yellow bell and the blue tambourine on the box. The writing on the box describes some of the benefits of the instruments for small children, e.g. builds a sense of rhythm, enhances motor skills, develops musical ability.

The beauty of this set of instruments is that each one of them can be played by the children themselves. They can grab hold of them and shake them by themselves. I mentioned above that you can shake the instruments fast or slow, introducing these concepts to small children with an easy to understand demonstration. You can also shake them very gently and quietly, or with huge enthusiasm and loudly (especially the tambourine) to demonstrate the difference between loud and quiet, telling your child that you are playing loud or quiet as you do so.

To see a demonstration of how to play these instruments, have a look at my TikTok on Wednesday where I will show you how to play them!

The instruments are made out of plastic and any small parts, namely the bell and the zithers in the tambourine, are fully enclosed in their plastic outer casing, so you do not need to worry about your baby putting the instruments in their mouths. I am not saying that you can leave your baby unsupervised as they play with them, as your baby can still give themselves a good whack in the face with them – or their siblings…. but they do take away an amount of worry about babies putting instruments in their mouths.

For very young children, being able to play instruments themselves helps your baby to understand cause and effect – your baby will move, or shake the instrument and a sound will come out of it because of their actions. It’s a great independent activity for them, they don’t need you to make the sound for them. (Your little one will need to be able to grip things by themselves to be able to play independently.)

A picture of the three instruments from this lovely set. These are the green maraca, the yellow bell and the blue tambourine on a blue background.

This is an absolutely lovely set of instruments, and a perfect set to start off your music box.

I bought this set from Amazon, and at the time of writing, the set costs £14.99.

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

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

Homemade Instruments

DIY Bottle Top Wind Chime

I do love the sound of a wind chime tinkling away in the breeze on a summer’s day. I have previously made a wind chime with some lovely, brightly coloured jingle bells, and if you want to have a look at that post, you can do so here.

So, this wind chime needs a little equipment to complete such as a drill, or a jewellery hole punch – I guess you probably could use a nail and hammer as well but I think that would be difficult because of the size of the bottle tops you will be working with. Basically you need something to help you make a hole in a metal bottle top.

I have been planning this wind chime for ages, well over a year in fact and so I started collecting the metal bottle tops when we had a bottled beer in preparation for this in the spring of 2020. I didn’t use all of the bottle tops I had collected, but I think I used about 45 of them for the wind chime.

So, the equipment you need to make a bottle top wind chime is as follows:

  • Beer or other soft drink metal top
  • Dream catcher hoop, or similar
  • Fishing thread
  • Jewellery hole punch

As I had been collecting the bottle tops for some time, the first task when making this wind chime was to give them all a good wash and dry. An odd experience to be sat at the kitchen table washing old beer bottle tops I have to say!

I then used my jewellery hole punch to make holes in the sides of the bottle tops. I knew that I would want to thread the fishing wire through both sides of the bottle top, so roughly aligned the holes to be able to do this. While it was pretty easy to punch holes in all of the bottle tops, because they are made with quite thin metal, there was one brand with gold colouring on it that had far softer metal than the other brands. I would say that it probably took about 45 minutes to wash, dry and hole punch all the bottle tops, and this was doing more bottle tops than I really needed to use as I wasn’t sure how large I wanted to make the wind chime.

Once all the bottle tops were clean, dry and hole punched, then it came time to make the wind chime itself. I collected the hole punched bottle tops, the dream catcher hoop and fishing thread and settled down to make the wind chime. I used this thread because it is quite strong, will withstand rainy and windy conditions outside and also because it is clear and hard to see.

Firstly I attached four lengths of the fishing thread to my dream catcher hoop. I chose quite long lengths of thread and chose to make two of these lengths of thread longer than the other two. The longer two lengths of thread were attached opposite each other on the dream catcher hoop. To attach the thread to the hoop I simply double knotted them. If I wanted to make them feel more secure I could have used a hot glue gun on the knots, but didn’t really feel I needed to for this.

I threaded the fishing thread through the top hole in the bottle top, and knotted the thread just underneath the hole so it could not slide up and down the thread, and then through the bottom hole in the bottle top, this time not bothering to knot the thread. This way the bottle top lay nice and flat on the fishing thread and none of them stuck out at awkward angles. I thought it looked nicer that way.

I did this with about 8-12 bottle tops for each of my four lengths of fishing thread on the dream catcher hoop, then used another, shorter length of the thread to loop at the top of the dream catcher hoop to create a hook to hang the wind chime from.

I put our new wind chime in various places both in the garden and even in our house. I quite liked having it in the kitchen near our kitchen table and listening to it tinkling away when the kitchen window was open. However the children also really liked having it there, playing with it and grabbing the tops and trying to make them hit each other – it was only a matter of time before someone accidentally got hit in the eye with it, or something like that! It could not stay there, so out in the garden it went!

I think the outcome is quite lovely. It is not so loud that it will annoy the neighbours, but is loud enough that we will hear it when sat out in the garden this summer.

This is a project for older children given the need to use equipment like the drill or jewellery hole punch. Or for slightly younger children with a lot of adult supervision. I would probably let my 7 year old have a go at threading the bottle tops with the fishing thread, but would not let my 4 year old try this activity, no matter how much she wanted to (and she would want to if she saw me or her brother doing this). The reason I would not let my 4 year old have a go is firstly that I don’t think she would have the manual dexterity for the fine threading the thread through small holes in the metal bottle top. In addition, when punching holes in metal, there could be some sharp edges on there to watch out for.

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!!

Music Book Review

Product Review: I Love Music Coloring Book

Today I am kicking off a new series of blog posts, reviewing musical products, with this colouring book that, according to the Amazon description for it, is aimed at adults to help them with relaxation and stress relief. Apparently this is a great present for a music lover. (I may be giving away a little of what I think about this book there…)

Colouring books for adults have been big business for some time now. I was never that interested in colouring until my children came along, but have quite enjoyed colouring in with them in the last few years. Colouring is a great activity for mindfulness, thinking about the colours you are choosing, thinking about the patterns you want to create in the picture, or bring out of the picture. It is an activity you can just do without having to think about anything else. I do find it really quite relaxing, and I like seeing the results at the end.

Like all children, my two have gone through phases where they really enjoy colouring, and my daughter, who is 4, is really into colouring books at the moment. It is one of the activities she can do for a good stretch, along with stickers and play dough, as usually she just bounces around from one activity to another. My son generally prefers drawing a picture to colouring it in, or colouring anything pre-drawn in.

When we do our colouring together my daughter likes for us to colour the same picture. I have to somehow guess which colour she wants to use and then she gets me to colour one area of the picture while she colours another area. Over lockdown I was listening to some parenting podcasts, and one of them was talking about colouring with their children, inspired by Romesh Ranganathan, as a non-screen based activity for the whole family. The idea was that Romesh Ranganathan and his wife had got out colouring books and started colouring, and their children had come along to see what they were doing, and decided to get their own colouring books out. They were all colouring together.

I thought that sounded nice and wanted to try it with my children, so got hold of a colouring book for adults. I specifically choose one on Amazon that said it was a colouring book for adults, as the idea was that I would just get this book out and start colouring, maybe having a colouring book available for the children nearby to see if I could get them to come along and join me. This is not a blog post about this idea of mine, largely because I would have to admit that my children completely ignored me and I was basically just sat colouring on my own – I tried it a couple of times, and absolutely nothing…! Oh.

The very first thing I noticed about the book, was this front page, which I thought was rather odd for an adult colouring book, a child’s one yes, no problem, but for an adult?

So many of the pictures in the book were OK for an adult. They are music themed, and have some quite intricate designs, which I think is what most adult colouring books contain. They were perhaps a little simplistic, but OK. Like these:

There were a couple of other pictures that I was not sure were quite aimed at adults, maybe more for a young teenage audience. Unfortunately there were more of these sorts of pictures in the books than the above:

And then I saw this picture. I mean, I would not be surprised to find this in my 4 year old’s colouring book!

I had bought the book, and wanted to try this experiment to see if I could just interest the children in joining me colouring without explicitly suggesting it, and so I chose a couple of pictures.

I’ll be honest, I got bored with this picture, and this is as far as I got before giving up. I have tried colouring mandalas before, and while they are also very repetitive, there are at least plenty of different shapes, and nice patterns that you can create depending on how you colour the picture in. So I tried a different picture.

Again, this one was OK, but I still felt it was a little childish in subject matter.

I do not think this is a colouring book for adults in the least. Maybe if your child is at the end of junior school, or the very start of secondary school at a push, they might enjoy this colouring book, but much beyond about 12 I think they would feel like this book is far too young for them.

I bought the book from Amazon for £5.99, link here if you are looking for a colouring book for a slightly older child. But I would not buy it for yourself. There must be better music-themed colouring books aimed at adults out there.

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 Rainsticks

This month’s spotlight is turned onto another untuned percussion instrument, the rainstick.

What is a rainstick?

A rainstick, traditionally, was an instrument made from a hollow wooden or plant based tube (in Chille, hollow cacti are used to make rainsticks) partially filled with small objects like small pebbles or beans. The tube would have spikes pushed into it. The rainstick would be held vertically and then turned over so the small pebbles or beans inside would fall from one end to the other, bouncing off the spikes inside producing a sound like falling rain, hence the name.

We have a rainstick as part of our music box, a box in our playroom with various musical instruments in which are generally inexpensive. Our rainstick is not a traditional one, but rather a brightly coloured plastic instrument aimed at children.

How do you play a rainstick?

It is easy to play a rainstick. As described above the most basic way to play is to hold it vertically one way and then turn it upside up down.

  • Hold the rainstick vertically, and turn it upside down, then back over, then over again very quickly.
  • Hold the rainstick vertically and turn it the other way up very slowly.
  • Hold the rainstick vertically and shake it up and down.
  • Shake the rainstick from side to side.

Rainsticks and young children

While traditional rainsticks are a rather different kettle of fish where small children are concerned, these plastic ones are perfect for entertaining even small children.

They are brightly coloured, which is always appealing to young children, and as they are made of plastic with no detachable parts, you do not need to worry about what would happen if the rainstick went into their mouths. Toddlers will enjoy shaking the rainstick and getting it to make a noise by themselves, and even quite small children will enjoy pushing and rolling the rainstick on the floor.

Developmentally, for young children, using a rainstick in this way, and especially getting them to do as much as possible for themselves can help teach your baby about cause and effect – I push this object and it makes a sound.

I bought my rainstick from ELC about 6 years ago when my eldest saw it and didn’t want to let it go. A very similar one is available on Amazon at a price of £7.95 at the time of writing.

This is an instrument, and toy, that I would highly recommend having in your music box at home. It’s fun and easy to play, and (as long as you get one like the one we have at home that is made from plastic) can be used by even very small children.

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 Handbells

My first memory of a handbell is of one being rung in the school playground calling me back in from playtime for more lessons. Years later when I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon I used to absolutely love using one of these old school style handbells to let people know the show was about to start, or re-start after the interval. It is mean I know, but it was particularly amusing if I made someone jump when I started ringing the bell.

What is a handbell?

A handbell is a tuned percussion instrument. Percussion instruments are instruments that are struck, shaken or scraped. Many percussion instruments are made so that they do not play a specific note, however tuned percussion instruments are made in such a way that they can produce a specific note.

Here are a couple of fun examples of music played with handbells from YouTube:

How do you play handbells?

Handbells are metal bells, with a clapper (sort of like a ball) inside the bell. The clapper is hinged, or in the case of the handbells I have at home mounted on a spring inside the bell and the clapper hits the sides of the bell to produce the sound. Handbells traditionally had a leather handle, but many, like mine at home, now have a plastic handle. To sound the bell you raise the handle up and down, or side to side so that the clapper hits the sides of the bell.

You can also play the handbells by placing the on a table or floor and hitting the outside of the bell with a beater.

The set of handbells I have at home are lovely, brightly coloured bells that can easily be played by children, even quite young children. I have a set of 8 at home (although my children have put one of them somewhere in the house that is not our music box so I can’t find it at the moment). They absolutely LOVE grabbing the bells and ringing them as loud as they possibly can do!

Each of my bells in this set are pitched to a note from the scale of C major – I may do a separate blog post explaining what scales are and how they work at a later date if people are interested in knowing more about them. When they first arrived in our house each bell was labelled with a sticker on the top of the handle with the note it was pitched to along with a number from 1 to 8, 1 being C, the first note of the scale for these handbells. Helpfully, given that most of the stickers have long since disappeared (children and stickers!) the same number that was on the sticker is also labelled on the main body of the bell.

As the bells are tuned, and each one is labelled, you can learn to play very simple tunes on the bells and play those with your children. I’ll be honest here though, even as a musician trying to show my children how to play a tune on the handbells they have completely ignored my attempts and just grabbed any old bell and rung it. To be fair to them, they were quite young at the time, and my now 7 year old may be more interested in playing an actual tune, but as young children they just think it is far more fun to shake the bells – and they do so love to do that!

This set of handbells is more expensive than many of the instruments I write about on here. The set I have at home was given to us as a gift for my daughter’s first birthday, and at the time of writing this blog post a very similar set of handbells was available on Amazon (other retailers available, of course), priced at £19.29.

Handbells Music Handbells Easy to Play Metal Hand Bell Children Musical Instrument Multi-function for Home for Children: Amazon.co.uk: Musical Instruments

Handbells and babies/toddlers

As we all know, babies and toddlers put pretty much everything in their mouths. When they are tiny they do this as part of their exploration of the world, and as they get older I think they just do it for fun – in the case of my 4 year old, I am sure she still sticks loads of things in her mouth just because I ask her not to! In addition, babies are not able to control the movement of their hands and arms, and young children. Bells are made of hard materials that will hurt if they are hit against your little one’s bodies, and the clapper can come away from the bell and be a choking hazard if the bell is mouthed. So young children should not be allowed to play with the bells unsupervised and you should keep a close eye on your children when they are playing with them. They are a lot of fun, though, and for my children they have been well worth putting up with the noise the children make when playing the handbells.

I will leave you with one final video I enjoyed of people who are far more skilled than I am playing handbells, and this time there is added Lego animation:

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Triangle

You do not need to purchase any instruments to make music at home with your children; there are a lot of household items that you can use as instruments. However, if you are considering investing in a music box, or box of musical instruments, for your children to be able to play with at home (a fantastic idea, by the way), then you could not go wrong adding a triangle to your instruments in that music box.

What is a Triangle?

A triangle is a very simple instrument. It is literally a tube of metal bent into the shape of, yes you guessed it, a triangle!

The triangle is an untuned percussion instrument. Percussion instruments, are ones which are played by being hit or scraped by a beater. Most percussion instruments are untuned, which means that they cannot be tuned to play a particular note, or notes.

How to Play the Triangle

It is played by hitting the sides of the triangle with a metal beater. The triangle needs to be dangled, usually from a string or something similar, although it can just dangle from a finger while you are playing it. I have lost the rubber band thing that my triangle came with, so in making the videos below I improvised using a pipe cleaner to dangle the triangle from.

So what would you do with the triangle at home?

  • Play along with some music on the radio, or that you have chosen to listen to
  • Try to hit the triangle in time to the beat, or pulse, of the music you are listening to
  • Play the triangle as quietly as you can. It is quite a quiet instrument anyway, but can you hit it as gently as possible and make a really quiet sound?
  • Play the triangle as loud as possible. To play loudly, well loud for this instrument, you just need to hit it hard (when playing with young children, watch out for the triangle, and beater perhaps, swinging around quite wildly!)
  • Have a feel of the triangle and discuss its properties – is it hard or soft, warm or cold etc
  • Use it in imaginative play, perhaps as a school bell, or alarm in a fire station; let your imagination run wild

Here are a couple of videos showing the very basics of how to play the triangle:

Another way of playing the triangle:

And once you have mastered the basics, it shouldn’t be too long before you can easily do something like this (well, a few weeks at least):

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

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

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!

Homemade Instruments

DIY Slide Whistle

I currently have both children at home given the situation in the UK at the moment. My eldest is set work from school which occupies him (and me with cajoling him to get back to it and helping him understand what he is supposed to be doing), but not the whole day. So we are back to trying to find things to do to pass the time- their baths get earlier and earlier!!

I was looking at Pinterest the other day and came across a post from DadLab looking at the science of sound. You can find the post I saw here.

This immediately appealed to me because my boy loves science and it’s another route into getting him interested in music and making music. Long term readers will also know that we love making DIY musical instruments and this fitted beautifully with that as the sounds made we’re just like a slide whistle.

A slide whistle looks like a recorder, but it has a thin pole that goes through the middle of it. To play the slide whistle you blow into the mouthpiece and move the metal pole up and down. This changes the pitch that is played, like this

Now, the DadLab video is pretty self explanatory about how to make this whistle, but here is a step by step guide. To make the DIY slide whistle you will need:

  • A straw, more than one if there are a few of you doing this together.
  • A pair of scissors (a grown up will need to use the scissors for this as it would be extremely difficult to do, if not impossible, with safety scissors)
  • A glass or cup of water, pretty full.

Cut through the straw about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way down the straw. You don’t want to cut all the way through, leave about 1/4 of the straw still attached.

Put the straw into your glass of water. The cut part of the straw should not be submerged into the water. I had quite a full glass of water when I did this with my two. My 3 year old can largely be trusted not to always knock a glass over, but I must admit to hovering right over her when she went anywhere near the glass! You do need plenty of water in the glass/cup to demonstrate the effect, so if your little one is very clumsy (that would be me still!) then perhaps you should just demonstrate this or use a plastic cup sat in the middle of a tray.

Your straw should bend a little where you have cut it allowing the air to escape. Blow through the straw gently and as you do, listen carefully to hear the pitch change from low to high and back again just like a slide whistle.

When my children had a go, they had great fun not only making the sliding sounds but also just blowing bubbles in the water. Our table was quite soggy within a few minutes!! As it was just water that I used it was easy to clean up with a tea towel afterwards.

When playing it we talked about whether the heard a low or high sound when the straw was at the top of the glass or the bottom of the glass.

Sound is made from waves and generally the further a sound wave has to travel, the lower the sound it makes. If the sound wave has a shorter (or thinner) distance to travel, then a higher note is produced. You can see this is musical instruments – a large double bass with very long strings will sound lower than a violin that has shorter strings. So with this slide whistle as the straw is at the top of the glass the air, and so the sound, can travel all the way to the bottom of the glass making a lower sound. When the straw is moved to the bottom of the glass, then the air only has a short distance to travel down the straw, and so it makes a higher sound.

This was a fun experiment, and a very quick and easy DIY instrument to make.

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.

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: We’re Going On A Bear Hunt

Ostensibly the book We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury would not appear to be a book that should be included in a series of reviews of books about music. However, the language in the book, the words used and the poetry of it is musical in itself.

Poetry and music are linked. The most obvious link between poetry and music is in song. Lyrics to songs are poems in their own right. Many composers set poets’ works to music, matching the rhythms of the music to the rhythm of the poem.

Poetry without music has rhythm, it has its own beat and when reading poetry you can feel the beat or pulse of the poem, just as you can with a piece of music. Poetry plays with words and the sounds they make, as music plays with sounds.

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt tells the story of a family who, one day decide to go out for a walk and on that walk they hunt for bears. As they roam, they encounter obstacles such as long grass, or a river or a snowstorm that they have to navigate. As they walk through the long grass it swishes and swashes; they splash and splosh through the river; they squelch and squerch through mud. They explore different natural materials that they have to pass through to go on their bear hunt, and while we know that the family would have experienced the look of the grass, the feel of it, the smell of it, this is evoked for the reader using sound.

Reading this book with my children, we often act it out – we go on a march through the house or in the garden and take plenty of time making and recreating the sounds in the book: swishing and swashing, or squelching and squerching (my children’s favourites!) We think about the sound of the word itself, the rhythm they make. It prompts me to ask the children to listen to the sounds around them: wind in the trees, the sounds of other children in the neighbourhood playing in their gardens, the sound of emergency vehicles at the top of the road (we live very close to a city centre so there are regularly emergency vehicles going past the top of our road).

This is not a book that has music as its subject matter, but it is a very musical book. It is also a fun book, and one we love reading.

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