Category Archives: Blogging

Music from Iraq and Afghanistan

How many countries are there in the world? How many of these have a musical culture of which you’ve never heard a note? Would it strike you as odd if one of these countries was Iraq – a place with which we have been heavily involved? I had never heard any Iraqi music live and so was delighted to discover that Reel Festivals was putting on an evening of Music of Iraq at the Roxy Art House on Saturday. This formed part of their Reel Iraq Festival.

The evening featured Farida with the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, supported by the Babylon Arabic Band. Both groups were very affectionately received and there was an engagingly enthusiastic, participatory feel. This video will give you some idea of Farida and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

If you’ve never heard any Sufi music from Afghanistan you might like to catch a return visit to Edinburgh of the Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawali Group at the Roxy Art House on Tue 26th May. I saw this group in a fantastic performance in The Queens Hall last year. Here is an excerpt of the email which alerted me to the upcoming event:

The Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawali group is the most famous Qawali group in Afghanistan at the moment. They will be performing at the Roxy Art House on Tuesday, May 26th. The doors will open at 6.30 and music should begin around 7.30. We aim to convert the Roxy into as close an approximation of an Afghan Sufi house as possible for this. As such we won’t have a fixed price for entry, but will ask for £5 suggested donation. More of course will be much appreciated by the sufi group, all money will go towards covering their costs and any left over will be donated to an Afghan Charity. Last year the group raised £7000, which they donated to widows and children disabled by war.

And here is a taster:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]


In our enthusiasm for learning through gaming, might we be overlooking one of the oldest games in the world – chess? There is sufficient belief in its contribution to learning in general, that countries as varied as America, Russia and Venezuela include the game – and its study – in the curriculum. Closer to home, Chess Scotland is very active in school life (look for Schools link in menu on left-hand side).

Google Alerts threw a pdf document my way entitled the Benefits of Chess in Education, in which, like music, chess is shown to strengthen other domains – reading, maths, logic, planning, problem solving, juggling options. There appear also to be social and behavioural benefits.

The chess community has not been slow to augment traditional over the board games and analytical books with a variety of hi-tech and online resources: chess computers; software; websites; gaming sites. YouTube features many instructional videos on openings and endgames in addition to more performance-based films such as this amazing blitz game (even the physical co-ordination is impressive – let alone the mental performance):[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /] 

or this simul, in which Garry Kasparov defeats 25 opponents:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Perhaps, though, despite all this, the game of chess continues to labour under the image of being a geeky game? Well, not in South Bronx, where the Dark Knights record against schools which can afford private coaching is very impressive.

Hands across the pond

I received a nice email from John Lay (of Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, MA) complimenting the playing of the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble and asking for details of one of the arrangements so that his own school guitar ensemble could play it. Flattered on behalf of the pupils, I emailed the score, parts and play-along midi files as a gift and look forward to telling the ensemble of our new found trans-Atlantic friends.

Mirror Neurons

These few thoughts began as a reply to a comment of David Gilmour’s on a post. As is often the case, the search for one illustrative link unearthed enough to necessitate a discrete post. The initial aim had been simply to launch one more ingredient into the mix of reflections on literacy currently taking place in the profession. In essence, the question was which, if either, is more literate: reading fingerings off the page or reading the movements of a hand on a video?

Although an ardent fan of traditional musical literacy I’ve lately begun to wonder if pupils might benefit from a supplementary option – watching the hands in a close-up video performance of pieces they are preparing – specifically ensemble material, where the moves they are required to internalise account for only a fraction of the overall sound. Preliminary canvassing of a few pupils suggest that they feel that this might be helpful.

I began to wonder about the role that mirror neurons might play in this and, in my search, stumbled upon this explanatory video. In the year of Darwin’s bicentenary, the question would seem to be, “why look an evolutionary gift-horse in the mouth?”

This train of thought is something of a slow burner, as this letter to New Scientist about this article in Feb 2001 might suggest.


Arms and gender wars

Having written on gender once or twice I was interested to hear, on a Guardian Science Weekly Podcast about a some experiments intended to put some gender stereotypes to the test. Some of the tests were to be used at an event last night entitled War of the Sexes at the Science Museum’s DANA Centre.

In the podcast, Professor Geoff Sanders describes tests designed to measure tracking ability – basically using a joystick to track a moving dot on a computer screen. In one version, a short joystick was controlled by the hand and wrist alone. In another, a longer joystick needed to be controlled by the shoulder and arm. It seems that women tend to be better at the former and men at the latter. Professor Saunders posits an evolutionary reason for this. One would think then that there would be, for example, more male cellists and trombonists and more female trumpeters and woodwind players. I wonder how to go about collecting the statistics on that…..

Had I not lived so far from the venue, I’d have been interested in attending an event like this. As it was, I was at a parents evening where the stats were:

Girls 45%    Boys 55%

Mums 50%    Dads 50%

Speaking of statistics, would it be stretching the spirit of the law to suggest that unnecessarily vague language constitutes a breach of the Freedom of Information Act? As a parent, which would you rather see?

Attendance – generally good


Attendance – 14/16 (missed 26 Nov & 13 Jan)


ScreenToaster 2

Inspired by another Sibelius “how to” video on ScreenToaster by J. Simon van der Walt I decided to re-do my own one, on the subject of converting Sibelius files into PDF files using Open Office. Simon’s contains audio (as opposed to subtitles) and, although I’ve experimented with this, I’ve yet to overcome some technical glitches. The reason for replacing the video was more to do with size and visibility. Choosing “full desktop” resulted in drop-down menus being nearly illegible. It turned out to be better to opt for “rectangular area” and to drag that around the top-left of the screen, where most menu activity takes place. I would recommend rehearsing to check that all dialogue boxes (when saving) will also fall within the rectangular area.

Hands across the sea

Today has had an international feel about it. I arrived in school early this morning to find an email from David Gilmour alerting me to the flattering fact that this blog is cited in a U.S-based distance learning resource. Later, catching up with Ollie Bray’s blog, I came across the Microsoft Innovative Teachers Network. Casting modesty aside, I decided to join.

I arrived home just in time to catch Obama’s impressive and moving speech. I wish him luck in what is surely going to be a tough gig!

Then exploring the Microsoft ITN a little further, I noticed that one could set up communities and decided, in the spirit of international bonhomie, to set up an Instrumental Teachers Community*. You may notice, once there, that I have been compelled to live in an apostrophe-free world. Perhaps this is a small price to pay for a hands across the seaexperience. As a gift to the community, I have uploaded an arrangement for 5-part guitar ensemble of Jacob Gade’s tango, “Jealousy.” To check that the link to this score worked, I clicked on it and was delighted to see that it opened up Sibelius Scorch which allows people who do not have Sibelius software to hear the score**. Right-clicking allows saving in the normal way.

* I have used the term Teacher as opposed to Instructor as the latter is more of a UK than an international term

** Scorch does not recognise Da Capo and Coda signs so, if you listen, the score may seem to make an odd jump at one point

p.s. since writing this it has become clear that trying to link to the Instrumental Teachers Community*. results in being asked for a  user name and password. So the only way in is to be a member of the Microsoft Innovative Teachers Network