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Our spotlight series explores the musical stories and experiences that bring people to music and what it is that inspires a lifelong love of music and the drive to share that through teaching music to others. In this guest blog, Marcel shares some of the ethos and thinking behind his new venture Cool4School, an online Song & Dance and Movement Music library for primary schools.
Marcel Pusey is a composer, bass player and educator. He is the manager of award winning production company, Bassistry Music, providing workshops for both primary and high schools in the UK and Internationally. Marcel is also co-director of O-Music Ltd, creators of educational music app O-Generator.
The Origins of Cool4School
For over 18 years my company, Bassistry Music has produced World Music, Rhythm, Song and Dance workshops for schools and we’re really excited to finally launch our website, Cool4School.org.uk (C4S). It’s been a long time coming!
My musical journey into music workshops began from writing music for my band, Bassistry, and for a number of years, touring with an African group. Then one day my old bass teacher suggested, alongside composing, why not develop and produce programmes for education and take my incredible musicians ‘back to the classroom’.
I started by designing a workshop exploring World Rhythms & Music. I composed songs in different genres and took the workshops into primary schools working directly with children of all ages. They became popular. Since then, establishing and growing the workshops in primary schools has underpinned my music career and my musicians now also play at the highest level, and still lead the workshops alongside their performing careers.
Bassistry has evolved in many areas of music so after many years, the right opportunity arose to create a resource that represents our workshop experience.
C4S shares a similar philosophy to Musical Futures. I truly believe music should be a part of everyday school life. Having worked at hundreds of schools across the world, I see the benefits of those that have and the loss for those that do not have these opportunities.
I believe that our role includes to providing teachers with simple, practical and easy-to-implement resources. On this basis, there were some essential criteria that we decided on when developing C4S.
Interactive – Get Kids Moving
I wanted to make sure the workshops covered core music principles; tempo, pulse, dynamics, melody, cross and syncopated rhythms as well as, exploring different styles including Caribbean, Latin, African, Pop/Rock.
It’s amazing what you can do with a drum kit, bass guitar, your voice and your body and I quickly learnt that using movement and dance was the way to create dynamic, engaging workshops. Embedding interaction from the outset has always been a guiding principle and one that anyone can adopt!
Simple movement can help kids remember words as well as feel and interpret the music. Oh, and it looks great! If you watch African or Maori singers, there is usually some form of movement and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Quality and Sound of the Music
The opportunity to develop C4S emerged whilst working with a UK company called, Delicious Digital (Delimusic) who produce music for television, radio and film. They also have a recording label, and were looking to put out my next album.
One of the things that came up in our discussions was on the quality of music in education. In fact, reflecting on the experience of my own kids, I was aware the music (even at primary school) that they listened to in their own time, was vastly different to what they listened to, or associated with school.
We watched clips from Sesame Street and the Muppet Show as part of our research and the quality of some of the music is incredible. So we made a commitment to strive to produce music for schools with the same production values as we use for TV and recording albums.
We would keep real instruments, top players and an authentic interpretation of styles at the forefront of anything we developed.
Keep it Simple
I loved the simplicity of the platform Delimusic music library worked on. So, we adapted the platform used by production companies from around the world to access their library for teachers to be able to access and use in the classroom as well.
Less is more
Rather than having a huge bank of songs, we decided each song would come with audio and also with a video of movement ideas or broken down dance choreography.
Each song we have included has been popular in our workshops so we know that they work.
How to use Cool4School in a workshop or lesson
What is the song about?
I like the kids to appreciate what the song is about, or what it is trying to say, so I start with a brief overview. Then, I like to play them the core musical ideas from the song.
Kids are amazing at picking up on basic catchy melodies and they listen even more intently when they have some basic understanding of what a song is about. We try to make sure the melody in each verse is the same which makes it easier for them to remember and memorise the words.
Break it down
The next step is to break it down. Usually, I start with a chorus but sometimes I will just go from the top depending on the song. By breaking it down, you can concentrate on the melodic shape, and rhythm.
My approach is to get them to listen first to the track with vocals. Then I get them to sing it back with the vocals, and then without. Then go from there, building on how the group responds and what works best for them.
Once the main melody is learnt it’s easier just to run the verses. C4S has the facility to break songs down embedded within the platform. You can select to play sections of the song and select from different mixes such as an instrumental verse, with or without vocals and a dance section depending on what you need.
Learn some moves
Next I like to look at moves that could support the music. If there is little time, I do the moves at the same time as learning the melody and although each song comes with suggested moves it can be great to encourage the students to suggest moves. Using C4S, you can watch the videos after learning the song to get them up and moving! It makes singing so much fun, especially for kids who can’t sit still!
The early years is all about getting into your ‘inner child’. Fuel the imagination, get kids acting and singing. We decided to make sure the videos can be just followed as a classroom activity, or used for performances. We wanted early years teachers to be able to enjoy music as a classroom activity. Music can be sounds, and not just singing and providing broad themes for the songs such as Pirates, The Magic of Books, Friendship and many more, allows for links to be made across the curriculum.
Where is it going?
We intend each year to add more tunes from the Bassistry song bank spanning different subjects, and different musical styles. Our goal is to provide new material for music coordinators and practitioners and to provide a comprehensive resource you can take back to your school and introduce to non-specialist teachers.
You’ve got to be careful using the word ‘cool’ when it comes to music with kids sometimes. But if it sounds good, feels good, looks good, and makes you smile, then that really is cool!
Michael Newton is Music Coordinator at St George's Anglican Grammar School in Perth, Western Australia. One of our Musical Futures International Champions, Michael was also part of our 2017 Study Tour to the USA and you can read his write up of the trip here
Beyond the Play Along
Just Play is a fantastic resource. It does everything it says on the packet, and then some. As music teachers, we can use play alongs to go far beyond just playing through the charts. Once we’ve played the piece there’s a whole load of detail we can dive into with our students, and because they’ve experienced the song and know the song practically through playing it, it should hopefully make more sense with stronger connections.
Because music is fundamentally something people do, learning theory on paper like I was taught without a strong connection to playing is about as useful as a handbrake on a canoe. The key is closely connecting the theoretical concepts we can pull out of the Just Play pieces to the actual just playing.
So, let’s take a quick look under the hood at some of things we can delve into once we’ve played through the play along.
This is usually our starting point in class. Before we play through the song the class is asked to listen out for the chord that sounds like the tonal centre of the piece. After we’ve played through the whole song, we trial the chord progression as a whole class, ending on the different chords in the progression. This explicitly connects the sense of ‘home’ to what we’re playing and hearing. Once we’ve identified the key, we can look at the note patterns of major/minor scales and the notes in the scale we’re working with. This links nicely to harmonic concepts and chord progressions.
The chord diagrams on the chart obviously show us which notes to play, but where did those notes come from? How and why do we know Bm chord needs an F#? What happens if we stuff up our key signature and play the Bm chord without an F#? How does that change the song? Once you try playing the song with Bø instead of Bm it becomes very obvious very quickly for students how important the key signature is. We can also look at the structure of chords and intervals - why some chords are major, and some are minor, or even why Bø sounds munted.
We can also listen for chords that perform more important functions - primary I/IV/V - and which ones are secondary - ii/iii/vi/vii (why do we so rarely hear a vii chord in a song?). This can kick off a discussion about which chord combinations create a movement towards or away from ‘home’ – cadences.
Melodic Shape and Patterns
Students sometimes struggle to pick the shape of a melody. Asking them to trace the shape in the air or on paper helps. Once we have the basic outline of our Just Play melody, we can talk about whether it moves by step or leap. We can also look at the phrasing (what cadences are used at the end of the phrase?), and whether we have any question and answer phrases.
Another good thing to try to pick out is the shape of any riffs in the piece. If a play-along has a strong riff and I have students on traditional instruments in class, (eg: clarinet, flute, violin), I ask them to try to figure out the riff and play along with that. Likewise, vocal melodies.
Most popular music is in 4/4, but there are well-known pieces in other time-signatures. 12/8 makes a lot more sense when you play ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ (INXS).
Incorporating Traditional Instruments
Just Play is charted for guitar, ukulele, keys, bass, and voice, but there’s no reason why other instruments can’t play-along too. Our students bring their violins, flutes, clarinets, trombones, trumpets, cellos, and saxes into class and join all the play-alongs.
Their starting point is to just play the root of each chord, then as they get comfortable branch out and try some different notes or try different rhythmic patterns on the tonic. Initially they can get hung up on the right thing to play, but we’re very clear that there’s no right or wrong. If it sounds good, play it again. If it doesn’t, try something else on the next loop of the chord progression.
This can progress to copying riffs, vocal melodies, backing vocals, or improvising totally new riffs to the song. We have a transposition chart for Bb and Eb instruments that students use to help with transposing from concert pitch to their instrument – you can access it here (they keyboard diagram is to help visualise enharmonic notes).
My older more advanced students still love the play-alongs and regularly request them. For one of our Vocational Education and Training units in Year 11 and 12 they have to create a lead-sheet, and the play alongs are a great place to start!
Going beyond the Play Along
With the new MF Styles resources we’re taking the opportunity to look at some basic rhythmic notation. Once we’ve played through the piece on percussion, we have a quick discussion about how you’d get a drummer to play that part. Giving them the rhythm grid and expecting them to figure it out won’t really cut, so we reverse Steve’s ‘Styles’ process, starting with which percussion parts match which part of the drum-kit. From there we notate each line, superimposed on the Styles rhythm grid, play through it, then remove the rhythm chart and play-along following the notation on its own, swapping parts.
I’m a bit of a nerd so I quite like music theory but the majority of my students don’t share the love, so we don’t over-do it or try to get through all of the above in a lesson. Rather we dip in and out of it, moving on to more complicated concepts as they get their heads around the basics. However, we always start by playing the song, and work through the theory as practically as we can, and always related back to playing the song.
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