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Monday June 17th, 2019

How to run creative music and planets -themed lessons for primary pupils – from music animateur Helen Woods [1 of 2]

The solar system

FREE EVENT: British composer Gustav Theodore Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets is a brilliant piece of music for inspiring young minds. And if you’re a teacher, you can see it FREE (with visuals produced by the National Space Centre and others), get a free DVD, as well as network with other teachers, on Tuesday 25th June at St David’s Hall, Cardiff.

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Helen Woods is a composer and musical animateur, who has been working with primary and secondary school teachers and their pupils for 20 years, creating fun, inspiring musical projects and experiences. She shares some top tips to help you create lessons to help pupils learn about the Planets and explore creative music-making.


Tell us about the Planets Suite and how you can start the lesson

 “Each of the seven movements is named after a planet, and each of the planets has a beautiful title. They are, in order: (1) Mars, the bringer of war; (2) Venus, the bringer of peace; (3) Mercury, the winged messenger; (4) Jupiter, the bringer of jollity; (5) Saturn, the bringer of old age; (6) Uranus, the magician; and (7) Neptune, the mystic.

If you’ve spotted the obvious missing planet, Earth wasn’t included because in the practice of astrology, the reference point is Earth. Back to Helen.

“For lesson one, divide the class into seven  groups, giving each a picture of one of The Planets with its name and title.

“Explain that you’re going to make the sounds of The Planets and that their task is to find sounds would be suitable for each, by trying out instruments you’ve either laid out on tables in the classroom, or collected into the centre of the school hall. This is a great opportunity for some young people to shine if they have creative ways of thinking or tend to ‘do things differently’.”

 How long should this take?

“Give them around 15-30 minutes. This may be longer than you find comfortable as there will be a lot of noise!. My tip is, embrace the chaos!

“Let the children explore. To start with they may well just head for one of the instruments that’s the loudest or looks the most interesting. That’s fine, let them.

“The important thing is to encourage them to listen and explore, let them get past the point where they say, ‘I really want to hit the cymbal!’. It will sound really loud and unorganised and unmusical, but it will all come together.

What if there aren’t enough instruments?

“You may need to find or create some sounds. For example, with Jupiter, the bringer of jollity, you’re looking for a ‘fun’ sound. So putting water in a thin metal bowl and swirling it around while you hit it on the bottom makes a wonderful sound. For Venus, the bringer of peace, you’re looking for something much calmer. So you could pour water from a jug, as lots of people associate the sound of running water with a feeling of peace and calm. Or you may choose to record sounds from outside.

So you’ve given them at least 15 minutes to experiment, or a maximum of 30 minutes if you’re brave. Then what happens?

 “It’s important to give children the chance to be imaginative and really listen. Let them have a go on stuff, and come to their own conclusions about what is and isn’t the right sound. It all takes time. They are researchers in sound.

“They will come to their own decisions eventually. And their ideas may surprise you. If the bringer of peace is a cymbal, it might be because when it’s played everyone else shuts up.

“It’s also important you’re observing their decision-making processes and being curious and enthusiastic, asking open questions about their ideas. For example, ‘What made you think of that?’, or ‘What does that represent?’. You need to help them to think through their decision and ask themselves why they chose each instrument.

“It could be that they just wanted to try a particular instrument, but they’ll probably try to think of another reason and may even come up with a very creative one!”

“Some children will find it easier than others. Some will want a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and so it’s helpful to say that we’re embracing this exercise as something where there is no right and wrong. Its more a discussion and a ‘yes, and …’ approach.

Once they’ve chosen their instruments, what happens next?

 “Ask for a volunteer to be a conductor at the front of the class. Not everyone will want to. Just let those who want to do it, take turns, and change the task slightly for each new conductor.

“Make sure the planet pictures for each group can be seen by the rest of the class. When the first child comes up to conduct, he or she could point to the first planet picture/group, and give everyone in that group a chance to play their sounds. Then he or she points to the second planet and repeat until you’ve heard all seven planet sounds.

“Then introduce the second conductor, saying: ‘Now we’re going to hear your sounds only for as long as the conductor is pointing to your planet’. Then the second conductor points to a planet, and so on.

“She or he could swap them around and choose different planets for different lengths of time. Your newly-created Planets Orchestra will really need to watch the conductor now. The conductor could even stop pointing to any planet causing everyone to be quiet. This could be the space between the planets.

“The third conductor could use two hands, pointing to two planets at the same time to see what those sound like together.

“The fourth conductor can include a signal to continue until told to stop, (I use the samba signal of the index finger making circles in the air). This version of the piece can have multiple planets playing at one time.

“Make sure to record and video the sounds on an iPad ready for  your next lesson – that’s a job that could be given to one of the pupils.

Read Helen’s suggestions for Lesson Two, plus further links and resources.

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