Vive la France! But what about Beirut?



 A short blog to kick off a new chapter.  

Change happens.  I no longer teach Music.  I’m sure this will surprise some,  but I’ve moved upstairs. Literally, from the bottom corridor to the top floor, where I now teach Beliefs, Values and  Traditions, or, to the more traditionally minded , RE.

It’s been a bit of a shock to the system. Not because the teaching is different – I’m a believer that teaching is teaching no matter the subject – but because it has given me an insight into the impact that news, media and misinformation has on young minds, and the distance that seemingly exists between many of them (not all!) and the ‘real world’.

I am wondering what awaits me on Monday when I enter into a classroom for the first time since the monstrous, hideous, sickening events of last night in Paris.  There has been saturation in the media today, and I am expecting it to impact my teaching of the Religion and Conflict unit of work I am currently delivering to Year 10.  But how will it impact?  I wonder will any student ask the questions which occur to me?  Questions like:

  • Does the fact that Facebook has introduced the ability for users to change their profile pictures to a French flag mean it mourns the lives of those that died yesterday more than those victims of the Beirut bombing which occurred on Wednesday?
  • Should news agencies stop mentioning religion at all when reporting on future terrorist atrocities?  Won’t this help show ISIS for what they really are – a bunch of fanatical, murdering, powerhungry savages – who have absolutely no religious ties whatsoever?
  • Do we not insult every Muslim when we connect them to this barbarism and widen the divide between us inch by inch?

It’d be great if this happens, but I’m not going to hold my breath just quite yet.  There seem to be way too many grown ups who haven’t asked these questions yet.

Never mind the kids.



Nicky Morgan vs The Bell Curve.

There is really no point in writing about the stupidity of yesterday when Tom Sherrington does it so well. Do read.


Screen shot 2015-06-30 at 22.22.42 Dear Nicky, let me introduce you to the bell curve.

Dear Nicky…

I’ve just read this:

In there it says this:

Schools eligible for intervention will be those which fall below a new ‘coasting’ level for 3 years.  In 2014 and 2015 that level will be set at 60% of pupils achieving 5 good GCSEs or an above-average proportion of pupils making acceptable progress.

I am now worried that you haven’t been briefed about the word ‘average’ or the new (laudable) determination by OfQual to ensure GCSE grade inflation is halted. The thing is this: by definition there are only a limited number of places on the bell-curve that can be called ‘Good GCSEs’.  You’ve decided to give a pejorative label (implicitly ‘Bad GCSEs’) to about 50% of all grades.  Now, instead of Grades 1-4 at GCSE representing any sort of achievement, they’ve been killed stone dead. Nice work…

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The fun, the fear and the fairness of a Listening Paper

I’ve spent some time this week mulling over the GCSE Music Listening Paper which my students sat last Friday (5th June).  There is no question that it was a tough exam.  We are yet to find out whether it was tough, but fair.

******Warning: The GCSE Music exam has the potential for fun!******

If you’re reading this and have sat a Music Listening Paper before you will know what my 32 students went through on that bright Friday morning.  It is a bizarre experience.

On the one hand you have a fear-inducing understanding that this is one of those future-writing 90 minutes.  Mess it up and college applications become null and void.  On the other hand, it is quite fun.  Possibly the most fun examination a student sits in a summer of prolonged pain and stress.

The exam whizzes by in a flurry of short extracts of expected set works.  There’s a man – we call him Gary in lessons because it seems to suit him and his nasal tones – who announces that “this is Question 3 for the third time”.  Because of his timely interventions students can’t get left behind, spending too long working on a particular answer, or, conversely, race ahead.  Gary doesn’t allow it, he’s on to “Question 4 for the first time”.

I have had to make a point of telling my spaniel-like, keen-as-mustard, music-loving class that singing along to the set works is prohibited.  “It’s not a party, it’s an exam!” “Don’t tap your feet!” “No Air Guitar thank you!”  This was after a near catastrophe in an exam about 8 years ago in which they played an extract from Surfin’ Bird by the Trashmen in the Listening Paper and most of my class started hand-jiving instead of writing down the answers.

The Old Skool

Before the current specification (2009 – present) the Listening Exam was a complete lottery.  There were no set works, but Areas of Study.  These were themed around historical periods of orchestral music (just the 400 years of it), or “popular song”.  How any teacher was ever meant to decide what counted as “popular” is still a mystery to me.  I tended to use the Beatles as a starting point and stick to the pop/rock canon that ran through until the late 90s.  I was often asked by students during this pre-2009 period what I thought would come up in the exam and I would bluster and pick something from 500 years worth of music history.  I actually guessed right twice with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Oasis Champagne Supernova!  I never saw Ricky Martin coming in 2008 though.

Predictably Unpredictable 

With the current specification we have the “safer” set works.  At the very least we know what is going to come through the speakers in that exam hall.

I have met the chap who wrote the current Edexcel GCSE Music syllabus a number of times.  He’s a sharp cookie, a sometimes-bearded Irish fellow who clearly knows his bananas.  The current crop of set works were carefully chosen and have been engaging all of our wide range of students throughout the lifetime of the course.  I attended the introductory teacher seminar about the specification back in 2009 in Bristol.  You will pick up from my tone that Mr. Johnny Martin impressed me.

How is it then that this paper has become such a minefield?  Why am I, the Edexcel Fanboy, concerned about their fairness?

Example question, taken from the 2012 paper:

Area of Study 4: World Music:  Capercaillie “Skye Waulking Song” from the album “Nadurra”

7. Listen to the following extract taken from the introduction and the first verse, which will be played 3 times.
a. Describe the sounds played by the synth and violin in the opening 2 bars. (2)

No problem so far – fair question.  I teach my students the musical vocabulary required to answer these questions and drill them that 2 marks means they need to write a minimum of two good, musical points.  Onward…

b. Name four other instruments playing in this extract. (4)

A gift of a question.  Kerching!

Except that the devil is in the mark scheme.  The 2012 mark scheme states that the markers should “Reject Voice” if students wrote this as one of the 4 other instruments playing.  REJECT VOICE?  All singers revolt – your voice is not an instrument!  Youtube the song and listen to the first 50 seconds of the track and you can hear it for yourself – there is a voice.  A beautiful voice, and the rules of the GCSE Music game have always, always, counted the voice as an instrument.

In one fell swoop our faith in our beloved syllabus eroded.  We quickly calmed.  It’s just one mark.  It’s not the end of the world, calm down, don’t panic.  But an isolated one mark question became a repeating theme.  Oblique, over-formatted questions matched with mark schemes that Derren Brown would find it tough to second guess, make it unpredictable and will mean that, even though I drilled my students on every practice question my team and I could dream up, and even though we had a group of students who emerged from the exam saying that that the paper “seemed alright”, I will still spend the next 8 weeks wondering what unseen traps and trickiness the mustachio-twirling examiners have in store.

Predicting the possible questions in an exam is something teachers have always played at.  But having to predict what “correct” answers examiners expect to questions we’ve seen in the paper?  That seems like a loaded game.

Roll on September when we can start the whole process all over again!

New Music GCSE plans sound like old news

“Help! Beatles in new Music GCSE” 
BBC news
“Santana and Sgt. Pepper added to Music curriculum”
Guardian Education 

My Headteacher arrived in school today (at 3.30pm!) and told me the news.  Apparently it was all over the the radio that a revolution in the music curriculum was underway.  “Wow!” I thought, “This is great!”

We’ve been waiting for the detail to emerge from exam boards for some time about what the new GCSE will look like.  It’s due for teaching from September 2016 and it would be nice to get a good run-in; planning it out properly, getting our resources in place and making sure that what we teach before the GCSE starts is preparing the kids properly.

I checked Twitter and the news websites.  The headlines are above.  Bit of a let down really.

“… new Music GCSE”

To clarify.  The GCSE I sat in 1995 contained the first half of the Help! album.  Sadly, this is now 20 years ago.  I’m not knocking the Beatles, oh no, not for a minute.  Anyone who knows me will know I’m a fan.  Walk through my front door and you are greeted to a too-big-for-the-wall black and white poster of the Fab Four.  I own most of their albums in one form or another, have Beatles place mats beside my bed, and have read and reread biographies, magazine articles, blogs…  I’m a fan.

But new?  Nuh-uh.

Don’t even get me started about Santana.  I will leave this choice to the Guardian’s rock and pop critic to describe:

“I’d like to have been in the meeting where, with the whole rich and brilliant history of pop and rock from which to choose something for students to dissect and examine in depth, they came to the conclusion that the obvious answer was Supernatural by Santana. I’ve literally got no idea whatsoever why anyone would think that was a good idea. It’s a bloody awful record.”

Set works

Both the articles above seem to home in on the “new” idea of set works.  This might be new for the AQA exam board who announced their plans today, but there are 5 or 6 major exam boards in the UK.  My students follow the Edexcel specification.  There are 12 set works on this syllabus already.

These range from Handel –  from Western Classical Music – to Moby – from Pop Music.  Jeff Buckley features, as does traditional Indian Raga.  The news today seems to make out that the inclusion of the Beatles and Santana is somehow groundbreaking.  I really hope that AQA are trying to string out the newsworthiness of the syllabus by saving some set works for later announcement.  If Sgt. Pepper and Supernatural are all they’ve got then selling the relevance of the GCSE to students is going to be tough.


The other announcement in the press says that it is now possible for students to enter a Solo Performance as part of their portfolio using decks and turntable skills.  


Students have been able to enter performances using this medium for at least 6 years.  Students can “perform” in a number of different ways in the current specs.  They can sequence, multi-track, DJ, MC, improvise, play clarinet, sing – if a music teacher is prepared to read the whole specification there are no barriers to student success on the current course.

Why change at all then?

Not for the students if the new spec released today is a benchmark.  And not for teachers either.

I’m not anti-change.  I like the dawn of new specifications.  As teachers we should always look to reinvigorate our curriculum, try new things and ensure our subject remains relevant to our students.  This is something which excites the teachers that I know – we’re all still learners too and learning new topics keeps us in love with our job. 

At Trafalgar we have a wonderful bunch of teachers who are genuinely excited and passionate about their subject areas.  We have redesigned our curriculum time and again throughout my time at the school to ensure creativity and engaging young minds remains at the centre of our school, not just in Music but in every subject.

We do rely heavily though on what is prescribed by exam boards.  They write the specs, we follow them, ensure we teach students well so that they successfully meet their demands and then we wait nervously throughout August for their results to drop on the doormat so that we can learn, review and improve the experience for the next cohort.  

I want my students to be ready to enter the future of music.  I hope some of the other exam boards take more of a risk than AQA seem to have today in meeting the needs of 21st century learners.

And 21st century teachers for that matter.

Where have all the tribes gone? (inspired by Blur’s new album)


Today I gave the new Blur album, The Magic Whip, a third, fourth and fifth listen on Spotify (of course!)  In the next few days I’ll add it to my iTunes collection, legally.

It really is a piece of work.  Funky, soulful, squelchy, poignant, beautiful, funny.  It’s brill.  It’s been the catalyst for what follows…


Music takes us places.  Back to our childhood and forwards to places not yet visited.  Apparently The Magic Whip was recorded in 5 days whilst the band were in Tokyo.  I’ve never been to Japan, but close my eyes after listening and I see neon lights, fast trains and tall, tall buildings.

And time

Th 6th Form Common Room, 1996, baggy jeans, adidas samba, long(er) hair, and endless debates about whether Blur were better than Oasis, or Oasis better than Blur.  The front pages of the Red Tops covered the release of their singles and the seemingly daily spats between Damon and the Gallaghers.  It all seems irrelevant now doesn’t it?  There really is nothing to debate. Oasis had two good albums, Blur are up to 7 or 8.  And if The Magic Whip is anything to go by, there will be more! (I’m not counting the solo efforts of individual members of Blur which would increase this even further).

I always sat on the fence in these lesson-avoidance-tactic ‘arguments’.  I honestly liked them both.  I liked the power of Oasis and their “up yours” attitude to the industry, and I liked the humour, melody and fun that Blur peddled.  My first major gig was Blur at the CIA and the heart-on-sleeve Cast No Shadow from the strings of Noel Gallagher was probably my song of that hot, work-filled summer.  Why are summers from childhood always hot?

One thing was for sure when I was 17 – I was in a minority.  Liking both was not the done thing.  Most kids in our large group of indie-kids nailed their colours firmly to a mast and supported one or the other.  Those that didn’t care for indie – the metalheads, the rap fans, the acid house bunch, the grungers – didn’t care about the debate.  But we didn’t talk to them, or them to us.  And none of us spoke to the rugby boys.

The Tribes

My 6th form was littered with tribes.  Tribes dressed the same, spoke the same, listened to the same music, liked the same shows, had their own corners and corridors, hung out together, and very rarely did tribal paths cross.  Sure, you may have had friends in other tribes, but those friendships existed in isolation – when you were the only two sixth formers on the bus home the tribes didn’t hold power.  But, those same two sixth formers would barely speak in the hubbub of the Common Room.  There was never any animosity between the tribes, just an antipathy towards each other’s tastes.

There was one stereo in the Common Room and, in the 90s, the indie-kids were the largest tribe and so we held sway over the playlist.  The rule was simple – whoever gets to the stereo first puts the record on.  Some of my tribe rarely left the Common Room and so I remember the endless sounds of Suede, Radiohead, Pulp, Menswear, Gene (loved Gene), Blur, Oasis, the Lightning Seeds, Cast – I could go On and On (Longpigs!) – throughout breaks, lunches and frees (apparently we were meant to be in the Library).

Sometimes, the Metalheads would get there first and we would have Metallica, or the Grungers, and it would be Pearl Jam or Nirvana.

Being here now

It’s been apparent to me for some time that this notion of the tribe is, at least in my school today, an old notion.  And music plays a major role in my realisation.

The listening habits of my students are hugely eclectic.  I love this about them.  There is no one sound that the majority adopt and they give everything I play to them a chance.  I teach mainly the oldest students in the school, and they are open-minded about listening to new stuff and do not judge and pigeon-hole each other based on different listening habits.  This is exemplified by their reactions to the GCSE set works; friends openly prefer either the Buckley, or the Moby, or the Capercaillie, or the Davis, or the Chopin. There is no one universal, tribal reaction.

Sure there are groups and cliques in the corridors, but these seem to be based around, pause, genuine friendship.  We have perhaps reached an age of individualism in our youth of today.  Look for the first time, using untrained eyes, and it may seem to be homogenous.  But kids today don’t all look the same, they don’t ape each other, they don’t listen to the same stuff within their social circle.  They are who they want to be.

This gives me hope for the future, because being an individual and a young person takes bravery and strength of conviction.  We’re going to need this in the next generation of voters, eco-warriors, musicians and thinkers.

I look around the school field every day and watch the next generation.  They seem pretty cool to me.  Cooler than I was.

For reference:
My two good Oasis albums would of course be Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?  Oasis albums after these were bloated affairs, with one or two good tunes, but never complete works.

The 7 Blur albums would be LeisureModern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, Blur, Think Tank, 13, and now The Magic Whip.  Some of their Live albums are great too, but I haven’t counted them because Oasis had some crackers also.

In case you’re interested and have never heard of Gene, check out their debut album Olympian.  They were my unsung heroes of mid-90s Britpop.

I always liked Pearl Jam… but never would have admitted it out loud in the Common Room.

A better suggestion for a revolution

I’m worried for the future.  Not for my own – as I say above, I’m good at making it up as I go along – but there are forces at work which will threaten future generations of musicians and, therefore, threaten the future of music. Politicians have stopped hearing our song.


How it used to be

I count myself very lucky.  Really I do.  I was born in the Land of Song.  The Land of my Fathers.  Living as I do now, in England, it is noticeable that there is a difference between the Welsh and the English when it comes to music.  It’s hard to put into words (but this is a blog and so I should try!)  It’s to do with self-consciousness. Sharing voices.

We sing in Wales.  And blow.  Pluck!  Bow.  Strike!  Shake and wobble.  We do all the aforementioned together. It doesn’t really matter if you’re good at forging a sound.  You do it anyway.

Lucky then

A man walked into a classroom (Form 2, Mrs Griffiths) on a Tuesday and offered 3 students the opportunity to learn the cornet.  My arm shot up and I was chosen.  It was a moment that defined my life.

The instrument I was given (Yes! Given!) by the man was horrid.  Black not brass, bunged and dented.  Mum took it from me when I proudly presented it at home and she filled a basin full of Dettol.  She left the instrument in the antiseptic bath overnight.
The man returned a week later and I resumed my training.  Just me on my own, an individual.  Notes, breathing, posture, rhythm.  And all for free.  Free.  FREE.

I learned to play my cornet for free, for 12 years, until I left school.  It cost my mum and dad nothing.  Actually, that’s not right.  It cost them a lot.  Petrol to get to rehearsals and concerts, new instruments when it became clear I was committed, white shirts, band ties, shoe polish, music stands, subs, books and so on.

But the lessons from the man were free.  And the orchestras in secondary school were free, as were the county orchestras.  Rehearsals for the county were weekly and I caught a bus for free every Friday after school.  Twenty miles to Tommy Pic with a ragtag bunch of clarinetists, percussionists, flautists and cellists.  In the summer we took a week off school and went on residentials (band camps!).  We played Beethoven, Mozart, Elgar, Bizet and for one spectacular week in 1996 the Pembrokeshire Youth Orchestra took on Mahler’s First Symphony.  Mahler’s Titan!  With kids!  Imagine how many top notch youth musicians it took to pull this off as you read on.

How it’s been lately

Since I have been a teacher, instruments have not been free to learn.  Lessons cost a lot.
That cost has been prohibitive and I have had to watch on occasion as kids have had to stop lessons because of financial pressure.  Parents have contacted me to ask for smaller payments, more time, or sobbed because they have had to choose between Sibling 1’s violin lesson, Sibling 2’s dance tuition and Sibling 3’s football boots.
Talented young people have missed out.  I might have missed out too if I hadn’t been so lucky.

How it is now

It’s getting worse.  A few weeks ago we heard at our school that the county’s Music Service was being taken away.  We’re not the first and we won’t be the last county to lose this precious aspect to education.  We hope to rehire the old county Peripatetics as independents and we won’t let our students go without quality instrumental teaching.  I feel terrible for our visiting teachers, some of whom have taught at my school longer than I have.  They teach our children to play an instrument with passion and verve.  They work hard in isolation, no matter how we try to provide welcome and community for them.

Most stark is the hole it will leave in bands and orchestras throughout Wiltshire and beyond.  These musical boot camps, where I spent so much time learning the craft of playing and communicating with others, may survive, but the cost will again be passed onto parents and for some this will be another nail in their wallet.  More children will begin to miss out due to money.  Of this I have no doubt.

So what?

The future of music within the national curriculum is not secure.  Moreover, with county Music Services becoming extinct, opportunities for young people to make music – to learn to take risks artistically, to collaborate, communicate and have fun together within musical groups – are fast disappearing.  The future of instrumental playing is at risk.
Sure kids will still learn to play the guitar using Youtube to teach them in their bedrooms, but what about the Tuba players, the Bassoonists, the Double Bass players?  These instruments may recede into history.

In my last blog I wrote about Tidal and Jay Z’s quest to banish Spotify to the history books.  Maybe Mr Z and his collective band of “artists” could put their money towards stopping the rot of the real threat to future music?  Maybe they should spend $56 million on music for youth?  Maybe they could pressure the policy makers?  There are some good people trying, but it’s falling on deaf ears.  Musicians need to stick together and ‘make some noise’.  This is, after all, what we should be good at.

How about that for a revolution to throw ourselves into?

Links to the petition to save the Wiltshire Music Service are below.  Do sign.

The man who walked into the classroom and gave me a cornet to blow was Mr. Chris Llewelyn.  Lovely chap.  I remember him with great fondness.  
The conductor of the Pembrokeshire Youth Orchestra in that summer of ’96 was Mr. John Rodge, a man of great ambition for the young musicians he guided.  

See?  Lucky.


Remember the day!  Monday 30th March.  When Jay Z saved the world!

Tossing and Turning

I spent a sleepless night with the wind howling outside of my window and thoughts of French men living in China swirling in my brain.  But little did I know that across the Atlantic in New York a real, well, metaphorical, storm was brewing.  It was everything I had been waiting for… Jay Z, Alicia Keys, Madonna, Daft Punk, Jack White and an assorted array of super-rich “artists” were combining forces in a sort of warbling Avengers Assemble fashion to right the wrongs and strike back against the most evil corporation the world has ever seen!

“Who could it be?” I hear you call from the stalls.

No.  None of the above.

I speak, of course, about the devilish, the abominable SPOTIFY.

Tidal will save us

I’ve never heard of it.  But it will save us.  It really will.

Jay Z bought the Norwegian Tidal last month for $56 million and wants it to destroy the evil Spotify and save humans and musicians (for we are different) from the tyranny which has taken hold of us since Spotify came into being.  I’m sure you are glad.  Who wouldn’t be?

But hold on

I love Spotify.  It is one of my most favourite things.  I use it constantly for listening and sharing the music that I love to my friends and my students.
Music has become exciting to me once again.  I have that itchy, addict thing back that defined my teenage years (but not in a bad way).

With Spotify I have rediscovered that feeling I used to have when queuing outside of Woolworths for the latest releases on a Monday morning.  That ability to waste hours in independent record shops that defined me “back in the day” – Dales in my hometown of Tenby, or SoundMachine in Reading, or Jam in Falmouth.  Places where you could ask the kindred nerd-spirit behind the counter to put on a CD (90s child) to see whether you liked it before you bought it .  I have stacks of CDs on a shelf in my spare room which were bought on the strength of recommendations from these sage-like musos.  Lewis Taylor, the Jayhawks, Gene, Gus Gus, Chet Baker, Gomez, my beloved Ben Folds.

Tidal wave

Tidal will charge users £19.99 to stream music monthly.  That’s twice the amount which Spotify charges me.  And why?  Because the “artists” want a bigger share.
Except the artists I’ve discovered on Spotify won’t get it.  The Low Anthem won’t get it. The Mountain Goats won’t get it.  Signals won’t get it.  John Grant won’t get it.  The Lighthouse and the Whaler won’t get it.
Because they make music for the sake of making music.  Not for the sake of making money. They make music with heart.  With soul.  Will they fit in with Jay Z and his cronies’ vision?  If they don’t, because of their non-conformist ways, what then?


On Spotify I am free to decide who I want to listen to.  I’m a fully paid up member. Artists are free to upload their material and stream it to me if I can find them.  Look hard enough and there are all sorts of gems to discover.  The Related Artists feature of Spotify is like diving through a pool of musicians and bands who swim past your ears like fluorescent tropical fish.  I listen to bands with names that grab me, or read biographies of people I’ve never heard of, but, if they intrigue, I give them my time and they repay me with their song.  It’s an independent record shop in my front room.

And of course they need to be paid for their art.  And of course they need to live and survive and support their families.  I’m a musician and I don’t play for free (unless it’s the Last Post). We are deserving of payment from those we entertain.  And I’m sure Spotify could pay more royalties, just like the beer festival my band played last weekend could have paid me more than the £45 I took for 4 hours work.

But that’s our lot.  And we love it.  The crowd put their hands in the air because we tell them to.  There’s power and honour in what we do.  Jay Z can sod off if he thinks I’m joining his revolution.

We don’t need it because it’s happened already.