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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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