Monday, 21 April 2014

Where did the last six months go?!!!!

It's almost a year since Maurice moved in, and he soon became everyone's favourite dog!  He settles down at Sileby Slappers sessions every Tuesday night, and thoroughly enjoys the open workshops at Sage Cross Church in Melton Mowbray every few weeks.  He even joined me and Backwater on stage at The Boathouse in Barrow one sunny summer evening.  It's such a shame I can't take him to work everywhere, but I'm not sure how much work would get done if he came to school, and what would Health and Safety say!  Maurice continues to need time and attention, and it's a good job we live only a minute's walk from the vet.  But it has to be said, he's the talk of the village, stops for a kebab each evening on his way home from the park (they call him Pepperoni Boy), and everyone knows this adorable, gentle, happy dog, and can see the change in him since he left the evils of the Puppy Farm where he worked as a stud for 5 years before being rescued by Sandy at East Midlands Dog Rescue.

Work News

I'm still enjoying playing with Phil Riley, and we've joined up with Helen Butterfield and Kev Lee, making new arrangements of Phil and Kev's songs, with mandolin, fiddle and harp (that's my new instrument, but I won't dwell on it, in case it doesn't go anywhere!  No doubt my next blog will reveal all!)  We're planning a few gigs for the summer, so watch this space (or give me a call, given that my blogging isn't exactly prolific!)

The Sileby Slappers continue to develop our performance programme, and are also looking forward to some summer gigs, including Sileby Gala on Saturday 21 June 2014, when I'm inviting all my students to join us for a grand finale piece - that should knock a few cobwebs off the Memorial Park!

Peripatetic Work continues in several local schools, which will increase in September when some of my Year 6 students move up to High School. 

NMPAT Musical Inclusion Development
The last few months have focused on developing this work in Northamptonshire.  We have worked with children and young people who are young carers, in the care system, in hospital school, in hospital and high security mental health wards, and in Pupil Referral Units, to mention a few.  Some of these projects are ongoing, and we are introducing Arts Award programmes as part of the musical provision we can offer.  There are many training opportunities for the team, which continue to broaden my skills base and widen opportunities for more diverse projects.  It's also brilliant to be working with a great team.  I'm adding below the latest blogs that I've written on the Youth Music Network site, which can be accessed there, along with blogs from my team and many other musicians working in this field

Youth Music Network Blog Posts


We should surely be thankful that in music education we must at all times adhere to the vast array of government dictates that will make us the best teachers we can be, and pass on this excellence to our students. 

With Ofsted, mock ofsted and peer observations, we can be absolutely sure that our perceived failings can be rooted out, commented upon, and held up as examples of bad practice. This is beneficial, enabling us to reflect on our work and make all the improvements required, according to the magnificent guidelines written and passed down to us by the government and its revered education department.

Just one word of advice, fellow music makers.  If, in your planning, you haven't mentioned that at any time you reserve the right to stop and plug in a microphone to capture an amazing, creative, experiential, musical moment that has unexpectedly evolved, which your students will benefit from recording and listening back to, you may be seen as straying from the session plan, and marked down accordingly.  This happened to a colleague of mine recently, working in a Leicestershire special school, which had employed an organisation to train all the teachers in the art of observing each other at work.
Observing other artists, teachers and facilitators is a highly useful tool to see how others make things work well, and how you might include this in your own practice.  Feedback from being observed is also useful, often giving us a different viewpoint and food for thought.  However, focusing only on the negative can leave us feeling dejected, unappreciated and questioning whether we're in the right job.
There are many boxes to be ticked, and thankfully in my own practice I mostly adhere to my own standards of good practice within the world of music facilitation, where "reacting responsively and creatively to the needs of the group, with sensitivity and humour" is possibly the top box on my list. 
If this makes me a maverick, so be it.  This blog is for all the other mavericks out there - don't let the Bs grind you down :)

For a long time, the old lady had been working as a freelance artist, leading percussion workshops and projects in a wide range of educational and community settings, comfortable in her ability to enthuse, entertain and engage students of every age and ability.

Some time later, the old lady found herself working with a team comprising considerably younger musicians, who seemed far more current in their musical abilities and interests.  She began to wonder whether the skills and experience she had been developing over the decades had much relevance to the young people in challenging circumstances that her team were engaging with.  She really didn't know what "Dub Step" was, and when a colleague played "Skrillex" in a session with behaviourally challenged teenagers, the old lady went home with a headache.

She called the leader of the team to discuss the dilemma in which she found herself.  Tongue in cheek, he suggested that perhaps some of the young people might benefit from a "grandmother figure".  That got her thinking.  After all, one of the most dear and inspirational people in her life had been her own grandmother.

At the next workshop, as the young people entered the room, the old lady's mindset was no longer "I don't know how to engage with these young people" ... it was "I'm going to find a way to engage with these young people and enhance their enjoyment and learning today."

And so began a new chapter in the old lady's life.  Nicola, who had refused to play a drum in the previous session, tentatively asked if she could try the doun douns.  The old lady spent some very patient time going over and over a pattern until Nicola found the confidence to play it independently, and by the end of the session was playing along proudly with the group.  The old lady had also been observing Josh for a couple of sessions, noticing that he didn't seem to make much attempt to be part of the music-making with his group.  So she went and sat with him, asking if he could play the guitar.  He said no, with a shy smile.  Well, the old lady couldn't either, so they both got guitars, and were soon playing two chords with the rest of the group.

Small steps, thought the old lady, who had had the courage to change her mindset and embrace her age and experience, instead of seeing it as an obstacle.  This in turn had helped two vulnerable young people to begin to see the power of music, and their ability to play and engage in it.  Which, after all, was why the old lady was there.

Roll on my next birthday, she thought :)


Recently, on a totally brilliant in-house training day with the Musical Inclusion Team at NMPAT ( led by the inspirational Isabel Jones, my head was exploding with new ideas and experiences – a really rewarding session. I'm sure we've all experienced training when we've come away feeling that we haven't learned or experienced much that's new, but Isabel's session was refreshingly stimulating and challenging.

We had half an hour left, and Isabel offered us two activity options during this time. I can now be honest and say that I was “full up” and would really have liked not to tackle anything else new at the end of the day – but it's often me that's outspoken, so I decided to go with the flow.

The outcome was that we covered another fascinating and insightful practical exercise in music-making, which really deserved far more time than we had – we could have spent much longer developing our ideas. However, within this activity there was an incident which triggered many insecurities for me, and at the end of the long day I was not equipped, emotionally or mentally, to deal with it very well.

My ongoing reflection about this has several aspects, and I may share some of them at another time. For today though, I think as a practitioner I'm going to be far easier on myself if I have a group for longer than an hour or two in future. There's no great Rule Book in the Sky that says I haven't earned my fee unless I fill every single minute to the end of the session, or that people will feel short-changed, which I think is what usually drives my work. I shall endeavour to read the energy of the group, and know that I can always save my next great idea for another time. After all, smiling faces on the way out are going to remember all the good things, and sign up for the next time :)

(Another Note to Self:  don't miss any of Isabel's training sessions, they're amazing!)


I've been teaching traditional West African drumming to five Year 5 children on a weekly basis since last September in a local primary school, and have two dyslexic students in the group, Charlie and Maya. I'm fascinated by the way they learn, and the idiosyncrasies in their approach to remembering rhythms. After the Christmas break, I was disappointed to see that they had both, apparently, forgotten the rhythm that we'd been playing at the end of last term. It didn't take the other children long to recall the hand patterns and the words we use as an aide memoire. But for Maya and Charlie, it didn't matter how patiently and clearly I went over and over the patterns, chanting “can of coke and a bag of crisps” (yes, I know, it should be “Evian and some sprouting beans”) I didn't seem to be able to help. Maya said please, please please could she start the rhythm on the bass, and I said no, because the sounds would be wrong.

I then asked the group to close their eyes, and listen to me playing the rhythm twice, and tell me if they were the same, or different. Each time, Maya and Charlie could hear no difference between the bass and tone sounds. In 14 years of teaching, this was a major revelation to me! It's never occurred to me that my students can't make that differentiation, and so would need to learn some other way.

Maya eventually said “I can't, I can't, I can't!” to which, naturally, I said “you can, you can, you can!” and we all started talking about what we had for Christmas, while out of the corner of my eye, I could see and hear Maya playing the rhythm totally correctly with a good hand pattern. As soon as the whole group started again, with me chanting “can of coke etc” Maya lost it again. Finally, I said to Maya, “does it help, me chanting those words at you all the time?” “No.” “Does it help you Charlie?” “No.” “Does it help if I say right, right left, right left right, left right?” “No.” “No.” . . . . “Can you tell me how you do remember then? Can you tell me what does help?”

And so began a fascinating revelation to us all about how Maya and Charlie see the bass and tone sounds on their drums as two different colours. Depending on which drum she's playing, Maya's colours are those of the two rings around the rim which hold the skin on the djembe. So, if I chanted “red, red red white white white, red red” it was helpful! And even if we were playing a different rhythm, “red, white white white white red, red, red” would still work! The whole group (including me) left the lesson beaming.

I've since had a long chat with my friend Helen, SENCO and Assistant Headteacher at an inner London primary school, who's studying for an MA in Education and Dyslexia, who tells me that current research points to dyslexia being a phonological problem. She was unsurprised that Maya and Charlie had “forgotten” the rhythm over the holiday period, and that they couldn't hear the difference between bass and tone. She was also unsurprised that colours and visual symbols were helpful for the children to process the rhythms. Most of all, Maya's ability to understand her own difficulties and explain to me how she learns is invaluable, because I can now do my best to try and help, not hinder. When focused and relaxed, Maya and Charlie are great drummers, and I'm so glad to have them in my group. An insight into Maya's world can only help me as a teacher and facilitator – and maybe it can help you too.  Never be blind to what your students can teach you, if only you ask the right questions ...

I have no doubt this will have an invaluable impact on my work with colleagues on the Musical Inclusion Team for NMPAT (

Finally ... I still offer freelance workshops for schools and anyone else who'd like some Africa drumming to enhance their curriculum/workplace, which I manage to fit in around the more regular work that I find myself doing these days.  I'm looking forward to having a couple of weeks off in the summer, projects permitting, and seeing some of you down in Kent, where Maurice will be rediscovering the delights of whippy ice creams (with a little help from me!)

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