Homemade Instruments

Baker Ross DIY Castanets Kit

I love a Baker Ross craft kit to do with my children. I often get one or two of their kits to do over the holidays. Usually things like sticker scene kits (there’s some nice nativity scene sticker kits available), suncatcher kits or even paint your ow ceramics that we have done for gifts for relatives. A couple of months ago I saw that Baker Ross did a few DIY musical instrument kits, and so of course we had to give them a go.

I have previously made one of their tambourine kits, and you can read about how I got on with that here.

Fore more information on how to play castanets, click here.

These kits are generally easy to use, and mostly involve decorating the instruments you are making. Be warned that they don’t actually come with any instructions, just the picture on the front, so you do have t do a little working out of how to put them together once the children have finished painting them. Luckily, you have my blog post here to read through and can avoid making the same mistake I made at first (I shall come to that a little later in this post)!The other thing that you should be aware of is that the bag the castanets come in contains a little packet of silica gel. You will need to make sure that your children don’t get hold of this packet and that you throw it away as soon as you spot it.

The kit contains all you will need to make 3 castanets. No decorating materials are included, so you and your children can choose whatever you want to decorate them with. I went with some Scola Artmix paint that I have at home. I bought a set of about 9 paints something like 3 years ago, and we have used them a lot. Especially when both children were at home all the time last year. I am only just getting to the point where I will need to replace some of the bottles of paint now.

As the castanets are made of wood, they are very porous and need several coats of paint to give them a vibrant colour. I painted 3 coats of the green paint on my castanet top and bottom before adding the blue and red pattern on top, and the pattern needed a couple of coats on it as well. I went for a spotty pattern on one side and, as you will see from the short video at the end of this post, a hearts pattern on the other side.

The kit comes with three different coloured lengths of elastic to tie the 2 side of the castanet together, and a small wooden ball that goes inside for the top of the castanet to click onto, to make the instrument’s sound. You could tie the 2 halves together without it, but it would be much harder to play the castanet without it.

Now, this is where my mistake with this kit comes in. Once I had painted the 2 halves of the castanet and let them dry, I threaded the elastic through the pre-drilled holes in the top half and then picked up the little wooden ball, thinking I would thread the elastic through that before attaching the bottom half. There was no hole in the wooden ball, and then I noticed that there were 3 pieces in the kit that had an extra pre-drilled wooden hole in them. This is actually where the wooden ball is meant to go! Push the ball into this separate hole and it fits nice and snug.

So, I quickly painted the actual bottom half green to match the top, and now I have 2 of them. It’s a good job they come in a pack of 3!

I then threaded the elastic through the bottom half of the castanet, pulled the elastic tight and tied it with a double knot so that the knot was underneath the castanet. You could tie it so that the knot is inside the castanet if you prefer to make it look a little neater, but I am not sure it makes much difference to the sound, and might prevent you from getting the elastic pulled as tight as you need it to be.

There are different ways to play the castanets, here are 3 suggestions (using another castanet).

And here you have a timelapse video of me making the castanet and showing you how to put it together:

I bought this Baker Ross craft kit direct from Baker Ross and at time of writing this post it costs £4.50 for a pack of 3 (there is an offer on, and the kit is priced down from the usual £6.95). You can have a look at the Baker Ross website and the range of DIY instruments they have here.

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!!

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!!

Homemade Instruments

Baker Ross DIY Tambourine Kit

As readers of this blog will know I do like to make instruments with the children, and for the children. For their part, the children love messing about with bells, paint and having fun making their own musical instruments. So we do this quite a lot, especially in the holidays.

I am also a big fan of Baker Ross craft kits and always purchase a few before any of the school holidays begin. They are great to pull out on those rainy days when you have run out of any other ideas of things to do with the children. We have had Christmas or Easter themed sticker scenes, we have bought things like Paint Your Own mug or tea light holder kits for the children to make presents for relatives with. I love them. I was delighted to see that Baker Ross did a set of DIY musical instrument kits.

The first one I had a go with, and my 4 year old loved painting this with me, was a wooden tambourine kit.

In the kit you are given some wooden tambourine shapes each with 10 pre-drilled holes in them, some jingle bells, some pre-cut lengths of ribbon and a very sparse set of instructions, that are mainly in picture form. Much as I love Baker Ross kits, I do find that their instructions can be a little confusing as they are generally all in picture form, and sometimes it seems impossible to do what the picture suggests.

A quick note of caution before I move on from the contents of the kit, there is a small bag of silica gel in the kit bag, which you should be careful to dispose of before your children get hold of the kit.

You could make the tambourine with the contents of the kit alone, but we like to make the instruments look a little prettier – besides the activity takes more time if you decorate the tambourine as well, and can stretch to fill most of a morning or afternoon. Baker Ross generally do not include any paint or anything to decorate these wooden kits with, so we use the paint we have at home. It is just children’s ready mixed SCOLA poster paint. We have had these very large bottles for years. I can’t remember when we bought them. It was certainly a while before the pandemic and we do a lot of painting at home, especially when we were homeschooling in the last 18 months or so. These tubes of paint are still going strong, and well worth the investment!

The first thing to do was to paint the wooden tambourine shape. I painted both sides of mine, allowing each side to dry before turning over and doing the other side. On one side of mine I chose to paint flowers and on the other side (pictured later on down this blog post) I did some simple stripes. I did have to put a couple of coats of the purple paint on to get good, dark coverage as the wood is quite porous. My daughter saw the tambourine drying when she came home from school (I had done mine earlier in the day to take pictures for this blog post and also so I knew what to do when helping her or my son make the tambourine), and could not wait to get her hands on one of them and some paint. She went for quite a stripy look for her tambourine as well.

The next stage was attaching the bells. For this stage I needed the decorated wooden tambourine shape, 10 ribbons (there were 10 pre-drilled holes in the wooden shape) and 10 jingle bells.

Following the picture instructions I threaded a ribbon through the first pre-drilled hole.

Tied a half knot into the ribbon and threaded the ribbon through the jingle bell, tying another double knot under the bell.

The jingle bell was firmly tied onto the ribbon, and I checked a couple of times that the knot would not come undone when shaken.

Finally, I threaded the rest of the ribbons through the pre-drilled holes, and tied a jingle bell onto each ribbon to complete the tambourine.

All that was left was to play it.

What do you think, does it sound like a tambourine? To my mind, this sounds rather more like jingle bells than a tambourine:

I did this activity with my 4 year old, and she loved painting the tambourine. She kept calling it a smile though, rather than a tambourine, and really loved using it to play with expressions – happy face, sad face turning the wooden shape upside down for the sad face. She played with the wooden shape without the bells for ages before we attached the bells to her tambourine. As a 4 year old she didn’t quite have the manual dexterity to thread the ribbon through the small holes in the wood, and she certainly couldn’t manage knotting the ribbon around the bell. My 7 year old would have just about managed it – however, he was more interested in playing on the Xbox at the time so hasn’t had a go yet.

If you are doing this activity with children, it does require quite a bit of parental support with younger children. The jingle bells are a choking hazard so you should not leave very young children alone with them. I believe the package says it is not suitable for children under 3 because of the small bells. It is a very fun activity to do, and you get a musical instrument to play at the end!

I bought my kit direct from Baker Ross at a cost of £4.95 for a packet of 3. They can, of course, be purchased from other retailers including amazon. If you buy direct from Baker Ross, they do options for school teachers of much larger packs to make it more cost effective to buy them for the whole class.

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:

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.

Playlists

My Favourite Christmas Songs

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

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

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

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

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

White Christmas by Irving Berlin

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

Santa Baby by Joan Javits and Philip Springer

Winter Wonderland by Felix Bernard and Richard Bernhard Smith

We Wish You A Merry Christmas (Traditional)

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

Spotify Playlist

Music Book Review

Music Book Review: The 12 Engines of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playlists

Classical Music For Christmas

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

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

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

A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Christmas Oratorio by J S Bach

The Nutcracker by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony of Carols by Victor Hely-Hutchinson

L’Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz

The Messiah by George Frideric Handel

Christmas Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli

Leroy Anderson Sleigh Ride

Spotify Playlist

Playlists · Themed Music

My Favourite Christmas Carols

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

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

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

Silent Night

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Once in Royal David’s City

Coventry Carol

In the Bleak Midwinter

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

In Dulci Jubilo

Away In A Manger

Carol of the Bells

Spotify Playlist

Instrument spotlight · Ukulele Challenge

Our Ukuleles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Sensory Scarves

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

What are sensory scarves?

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

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

How to use Sensory Scarves

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

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

Musical Play with Sensory Scarves

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

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

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

Instrument spotlight

Spotlight on Sleigh Bells / Jingle Bells

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

What are Sleigh Bells?

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

How do you Play Sleigh Bells?

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

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

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

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

Sleigh Bells and Small Children

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

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

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

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

Playlists

Classical Music for Halloween

Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens

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

O Fortuna from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff

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

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J S Bach

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

In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg

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

Totentanz by Franz Liszt

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

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

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

War Requiem by Britten

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

Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass by Verdi

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

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

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

You can listen to the whole of this playlist here:

Reaponses to Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playlists

Animals in Children’s Songs

There are so many children’s songs about animals and with animal sounds in. For small children, these songs are absolutely fabulous. They are full of animal sounds or fun actions that will amuse your baby and that your toddler can learn and join in with. I think I could put together about 17 playlists of songs about animals (and I will put together a separate playlist of animals in classical music later on), but for now here is a playlist of 11 songs featuring animals to get you started.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Animal Fayre

This was one of the first songs I started singing to my son, usually during nappy changes. I added actions into the song, and made a big thing of the elephant sneezing and falling to his knees to entertain him while I was changing his nappy – to get him to stay still, or a little still while I was doing it. Fast forward a little, and after school we sang it together as he was eating Animal biscuits – if he called out that he had pulled a monkey out of the bag of biscuits, then I sang Animal Fayre.

It’s a great song for starting to learn about harmony as well, and choral singing. Once you get to the end of the song “and what became of the monkey?” you can repeat the word monkey to the same note as someone else sings the rest of the song. Two people singing at the same time and each person singing something different, it is a lovely introduction to people singing together.

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

This song can go on for as long or as short a time as you want it to, depending on how many animals you want to have on Old MacDonald’s Farm. It’s a great song for teaching small children about animals and the sounds they make. You can sing the song all the way through, or for each animal you an stop, show your little one an animal picture or puppet; ask them what the animal is and what sound they make and then sing the song. With my children we have gone through many animals – the usual farm yard animals and some more unusual ones as well – at times we have had frogs, hippos, aardvarks and even dinosaurs on Old MacDonald’s Farm. We have had to dig deep into our imagination to come up with the noises some animals make that we have been asked to add into the farm.

Who’s at the Door from Tee and Mo

I have mentioned the TV programme Tee and Mo before as there are so many brilliant songs in it, including one of my favourite lullabies. This one is a really fun song, with very no words, just a doorbell and then an animal sound. We didn’t actually see this on the cartoon, but I bought the album which had this song on, and it was a great song for the post-school/nursery journey home to lift spirits with the children calling out the animals as they recognised the animal’s sounds in the song.

How Much is That Doggy in the Window

This was a favourite bath song for our boy for several months. Like Old MacDonald it’s a great song for learning animal names and sounds. This time generally more domestic animals, though again during his dinosaur obsession phase my son liked to challenge us with creatures we could include in the song. My son would shout out the animal/creature he wanted to be in the window, and we would sing the song, making up the sounds it makes and adding in an attribute. For example:

How much is that T-Rex in the window?

(roar, roar)

The one with the big, shiny teeth

BINGO

Although this is largely known as a spelling song (and yes, it is all about spelling the word Bingo), I think of it more as a memory song. The song is about a farmer whose dog is called Bingo, and the dog’s name is spelled out in the song:

There was a Farmer and his dog

And Bingo was his name, oh

B-I-N-G-O

B-I-N-G-O

B-I-N-G-O

And Bingo was his name, oh

The same words are then repeated, but the second time instead of singing the B of B-I-N-G-O, you clap your hands (great clapping practice for very small children). Next verse you can either clap for both the B and the I, or just the I of B-I-N-G-O etc until you have gone through the whole word. This is why I think it is a good memory song as you have to remember where you have got to in the dog’s name, and you have to remember to come back in singing after you have clapped enough times.

The Ants Go Marching Two by Two

You will find this song on my playlist of counting songs, because, well the ants start off marching one by one, then two by two and all the way up to ten by ten. But this is not just a counting song, or just a song about ants. It is also full of lovely rhymes – the ants march two by two and the little one stops to tie his shoe; the ants march three by three and the little one stops to climb a tree etc.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

A lovely nursery rhyme, one of the first you will probably sing to your baby. It is sung to a variation of the melody to the French song “Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman”, and you may notice that this is almost identical to the melody for nursery rhymes “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the Alphabet Song. As the melody is very similar to a number of other songs for small children it is easy to remember and sing with your little one. As a variation of the song and to keep my daughter awake on car journeys to avoid a danger nap (a nap too close to bed time that will stop her going to sleep at night), I have sung baa baa red sheep, or green sheep or whatever colour my daughter could shout out from the back of the car. It was a favourite song of hers for a while.

Hickory Dickory Dock

You are highly likely to know this song already. A mouse runs up a clock and the clock strikes one. This is a nice song to sing with very small children. When singing the song you can tickle your little one, running your hands up their arm as the mouse goes up the clock and down again as the mouse runs down the clock.

Cat Came Fiddling out of the Barn

This is an odd but fun song that is fun to dance around to. At one point in the song a mouse marries a bumblebee – happens every day around here!

Incy Wincy Spider

Another lovely nursery rhyme to sing with small children. The song lends itself to using actions that go together with the words to the nursery rhyme – moving your hands in the air in front of your child from low to high as Incy Wincy (may also be referred to as Itsy Bitsy Spider) climbs up the water spout; holding your hands up palms out and fingers spread out and wiggling and moving from high to low in the air in front of your child as the rain comes down, etc. As these are quite simple actions, like with Hickory Dickory above, your child can actually join in with the song with you from a very young age, copying your actions.

Hey Diddle Diddle the Cat and the Fiddle

I loved this song when I was a little girl. We had the lyrics in a book of a collection of nursery rhymes and I distinctly remember the pictures that accompanied it – a cow jumping over a moon, an anthropomorphic dish and spoon running off together. This is a fun, nonsense verse set to music.

Playlists · Themed Music

Classical Music for Autumn/Fall Playlist

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

The Four Seasons – Autumn by Antonio Vivaldi

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

Das Jahr by Fanny Mendelssohn

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

The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst

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

Music for Rainy Weather

Folk Songs of the Four Seasons by Ralph Vaughan Williams

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

Shaker Loops by John Adams

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

9 Songs for Summer

Autumn Gardens by Einojuhani Rautavaara

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

String Quartet no 15 by Ludwig van Beethoven

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

Playlist

Playlists

Songs for Halloween

Halloween is a celebration that has been growing in popularity over the years. In our little community we have had a lovely tradition each year where most of the houses in the streets near us decorate the front of their houses, and on one Sunday afternoon near to Halloween all of the families who want to take part in trick or treating meet at the bottom of one of our streets and we all go Trick or Treating together. The majority of the families here have young children, so it is a really nice, safe way to take part. For obvious reasons we will not be going Trick or Treating like this with the children this year, but we will still celebrate Halloween this year, especially as it falls at the end of half term, and I will be looking for ways to keep the children entertained at home. On Halloween itself we will probably do some sort of scavenger hunt at home, and have a Halloween party. The following songs will be on our playlist:

Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett

This song tells the story of a mad scientist in his lab who comes up with a new dance that becomes a new dance craze.

Thriller by Michael Jackson

It goes without saying that Thriller will feature on a Halloween party playlist. Writing this now, I am wondering if my children are old enough to attempt the dance routine – you know the one. Well you will do if you watched the video to this song as often as I did when I was a child!

Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr

Who are you going to call?

Of course Ghostbusters has to feature on a Halloween playlist. It’s a fun song to dance to and sing along to for children of all ages.

Harry Potter Theme Tune by John Williams

Not a song, I admit, but something from the Harry Potter soundtrack will definitely feature on our Halloween party playlist. Harry Potter, if you don’t know already, is a boy brought up by his awful human uncle and aunt until he finds out that his parents were quite famous in the wizarding world and that he is to go off to wizarding school himself. The books by J K Rowling have been made into films, and the instantly recognisable main theme is a worthy inclusion in any Halloween party play list.

Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell

What could be more Halloween and spooky than having the feeling that you are being watched. The music in this is insistent, creepy and spooky right from the start, but also good to dance to.

The Adams Family

They’re creepy and they’re kooky

Mysterious and spooky

They’re altogether ooky

The Adams Family

A brilliant family friendly Halloween film, and the theme tune is now synonymous with this time of year.

Vampirina Theme Tune

My daughter loves Vampirina on Disney +, and will almost certainly be dressing up as Vampirina for Halloween this year. I have already had to promise her that I will paint her face purple like Vampirina. So there will definitely be some songs from the show on our Halloween playlist.

Halloween Sharks by Pink Fong

Oh god!! My daughter loves this song. She loves Baby Shark generally, and this is just a Halloween version. They do Christmas version as well in case you haven’t had enough of the song! This goes round and round my head for hours after it is played. To be fair, it does get played about 17 times every time it is put on.

Ukulele Challenge

Ukulele Challenge Update Weeks 5-7

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

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

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

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

Playlists

Lullabies I Have Sung To My Children

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

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Amazing Grace

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

Goodnight Sweetheart by The Spaniels

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

Wiegenlied (or Lullaby) by Johannes Brahms

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

Stay Awake from the film Mary Poppins

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

Go to Sleep from Tee and Mo

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

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

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

Coventry Carol

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