Category Archives: Admin/Planning

Showcase Rehearsal No. 3

Esteemed Pupils,

You may already have discovered that schools are to remain closed to pupils until Monday 6 December. Sadly, this means that our East Lothian Guitar Ensemble rehearsal, scheduled for Friday, will not be able to go ahead. However, rest assured that parts for our 3rd piece will be distributed to you on Tue 7th, Wed 8th & Thu 9th respectively. Play-along midi files for this mystery piece will be posted along with those already there for two pieces already underway.

The next scheduled Showcase rehearsal is Friday 21 Jan. See Dates For Your Diary for the complete list.

Thanks for your hard work and savoir faire, so far. Enjoy the snow while it lasts.

photo by Lesley Pearson

Loose is not the same as slack

At this time of year the formal timetable often yields to entertainment, liaison and evangelism. Apart from the obvious benefits, this removes the incongruity of final lessons where no homework is given and no sense of urgency obtains.

Here are a few examples of recent and pending events:

Fri 13th

The Big Gig @ MGS. This event always involves self-taught pupil bands, dance groups, staff performances (usually comical) and a staff-student band. This year a new element was included in the staff-student House Band which had interesting consequences – a horn section. As the horn parts had to be arranged and written out, this meant that the band had to adhere to and memorise the structure. The rehearsals were definitely a little more fraught than usual as there was clearly more discipline than some would have liked in their spare time, but the results made it all worthwhile and I feel sure that all involved felt that they’d raised their game.

Mon 16th

Campie PS – guitarists from P5-P7 put on a concert of ensemble and solo music for P4 pupils. The audience contained next years new guitar players, and I was bowled over by their rapt attention. The situation also includes an opportunity for the P4s to question the existing players about what is involved in learning an instrument at school.

Tue 17th

Four S3 guitar pupils from NBHS will accompany me on a trip to Law PS to play for the P7s. This coincides with the eve of the P7 pupils’ visit to the High School and so there should be an extra edge to the transitional feel of things. The P7s eduBuzzers plan to podcast the event so keep an eye on the Law PS blog. There will also be time for questions at this event.

Thu 19th

MGS Summer Concert. There should be a doubly transitional feel to our Guitar Group this year. We are to be joined by two extremely enthusiastic P7 pupils from Wallyford PS and also by two former pupils who, as they are coming in to lend a hand with sound-mixing, will no doubt join the ensemble. This means the age gap between youngest and eldest will be 8 years (I’m not including myself in this equation). In addition to playing in our own ensemble, some of the pupils play in the orchestra, jazz band and a new traditional music ensemble.

Wed 25th

P7 Leaving Assembly @ Wallyford. I can’t be at this event as I’ll be in another school but will be present in digital form – on a CD to accompany the pupils. This will be a new discipline for them as a CD can’t jump to their aid like a teacher.

Fri 27th

Retirement Assembly @ Wallyford for a much loved member of staff. The plan is to bring six former pupils across from MGS so that, along with the P7s we can play, for the pupils and staff at this send-off. I can’t think of a nicer way to end the school year.

Learned but not taught?

Some days you think you’ve nothing to say and then you chance upon an idea and off you go. I read with interest a new blog by a former depute whom I knew at Knox. Now at Liberton High School, Donald McDonald has launched Head’s Blog. I was struck in this post by the idea that classroom management can be learned but not taught. This intrigued me and before long my comment had assumed the proportions of a complete post.

The comment awaits moderation but I feel sure that Donald, who specifically invites comment, won’t mind if I pre-empt his acceptance here:

Hi Donald,

Nice to catch up – if only virtually. I came across your blog today (thanks to Ollie) and enjoyed reading your interesting posts. I’m intrigued by the notion of something that can be learned but not taught (classroom management being the example given in your latest post).

I suppose whether one resonates with that view depends on what is meant by taught. Taught in the sense of someone telling you things? Taught in the sense of observation followed by analysis and discussion? Taught through role play? I’m particularly interested in this being an instrumental instructor as hardly any of us underwent teacher training of any sort and learned on the job. Sadly, for some pupils, part of this must have been through our mistakes. I’d say there is a place for some sort of preparation before beginning our particular job – even if it only amounted to a short observation/mentoring programme before beginning. There are many skills to pick up and I’ve seen people unnecessarily drowning in a torrent of unfamiliar administrative and procedural matters – and that’s before the teaching even begins!

More than anything, though, I’d say language is the key. I’ve sat in the classrooms of some great (class) music teachers, eavesdropping from the PC printer, and the unambiguous simplicity with which they give instructions, offer explanations, pose questions lifts a veil from the ears. I’d say that some of this could be taught.

Here’s a daft but, hopefully illuminating example from my own practice. I like to finish lessons with some sort of aural games. A favourite is to play short phrases which pupils then play by ear on their guitars – using any new notes featured in that lesson. They’re told the starting note and asked to look away, as it’s a game for the ears and not the eyes. When I first began using this game, I noticed that some pupils, although they had faithfully looked in the other direction for previous examples, were staring directly at my guitar in advance of the forthcoming one. At first I thought that they’d simply forgotten that little detail or perhaps imagined that I wouldn’t notice. Then it struck me that I’d announced the next example by saying, “OK, what about this one?” Using the word, “this” was effectively a direct invitation (almost an instruction) to look. That phrase has since been replaced by “Right, here’s another one – look away.”

That was a bit of a ramble – but I hope it made sense. I’ll look in again soon to see if you have any comments.


Alan (

The sum of the parts

This week, secondary school guitarists received music for their second Christmas Concert item and next week they will be given music for the second of three pieces for the East Lothian Showcase Concert*. Or, to put it another way, in week 11 of 39, the pupils will begin work on their 4th ensemble piece of 7**. Distributing such a quantity of music over a few weeks, and pupils asking questions about who is getting which part, urged me to reflect on the decision-making process.

Is some ensembles, this is simply not an issue. In an orchestra the flautist, for example, gets the flute part. In a guitar ensemble, however, any player could, in theory, be given any part. Most arrangements are in four parts – occasionally in three and very occasionally in five or more. The simplest way to approach the task would be to grade the four parts in terms of difficulty, divide the group into quarters based on age, experience and accomplishment (not as related as you might think) and divide up the music. Even assuming that the membership of the group was a product of 4, this approach would overlook some factors which affect the balance of the sound:

  • some people simply play more loudly than others
  • some guitars are louder than others

To add some more gray to the picture, there are times when a pupil might benefit from being placed in a group other than the seemingly obvious one:

  • when the time is right to stretch them
  • when they already have a great deal on their plate e.g. a demanding programme of pieces for an SQA or external exam
  • if they agree to accept a leadership role for a younger group – the idea being that they blast out the part as an audio beacon
  • if they have been given parts of the same type of part recently e.g. melody, bass, harmony***

The question of whether to play to pupils’ strengths or weaknesses also features. Nobody benefits from a poor concert performance and the temptation exists to give pupils parts which you know they will conquer easy. Those with natural aural facility can learn a melody part very quickly. Confident readers can manage parts in unfamiliar ranges or with surprising content. However, playing to their strengths can amount to the same thing as immortalising their weaknesses.

Such an degree of variability requires keeping a log of who is (and has been playing) what. Not only does this help avoid boring pupils with the same type of material but helps organise seating/walk-on plans for concerts.

* Fri 7 Mar at 7:30 in Musselburgh Grammar School.

** 7 pieces assumes the following pattern:

Christmas Concert – 2 pieces; Showcase Concert – 3 pieces; Spring or Summer Concert – 2 pieces. However, some may also take part in: Burns Supper performances; small group items at concerts; P7 Parents’ Evening performances; solos and out of school music making.

*** With the benefit of the Guitar Group Support (Additional Parts) Page, pupils can experience ensemble parts other than those prescribed.

As Daft As It Sounds?

The good thing about having approachable and flexible colleagues is that you can run things up the flagpole in the knowledge that they will be considered and only knocked back for good, practical reasons. As this year’s testing process runs on & on the following facts occurred to me:

  • the most time-consuming process takes place in primary schools with several P5 classes
  • testing can be started right at the beginning of term as pupils in primary schools are simply easier to contact
  • the process is much shorter in secondary schools
  • due to rotas, some pupils do not have Music in the first part of S1 and special measures have to be taken to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to apply – so testing does not begin until week 3 or 4. During this time, the periods reserved for S1 pupils are not used for teaching.

One of the results of this is that the youngest people are waiting the longest for results. It must be like being told on Dec 24th that Christmas is as frequent as leap years.

So, one idea to run up the flagpole, is that secondary schools donate as much of Week 1 as necessary so that the entire Primary process (Listening Test followed by Aptitude Test on the guitar) can be wrapped up and invitations issued before the end of that week.

The advantages are obvious enough. Are there any obvious disadvantages?

  • Any pupil absent in the first week would miss out completely.
  • Disruption – each P5 class would have a “whole class” Listening Test followed by several smaller groups of pupils being extracted for the Aptitude Tests. This could be very unsettling. Would it be worth it?