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Teaching folk music online

When the Covid pandemic hit, I think many music teachers were wary of what was coming a few weeks before...

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Teaching folk music online

When the Covid pandemic hit, I think many music teachers were wary of what was coming a few weeks before the first lockdown. Teachers realised that something was going to happen, but the unsure nature of the whole situation meant that when the first lockdown hit, we had to respond fast, and within two weeks or so of the first lockdown, Folk Factory had come up with a response to moving the weekly music sessions to an online setting.

The Folk Factory consists of 3 evening classes, for juniors, youths, and adults, and one lunchtime club at a primary school in Sheffield. The groups welcome all musicians, any age, instruments or abilities, and teach with a strong focus on learning by ear, and inclusive, creative musical making environment. There is a strong sense of community within the groups, particularly with the children, they have formed strong friendships over the years and are proud to be part of the group. It was clear from the start of the lockdown that this sense of community would be a driving force behind the continuation of the Folk Factory online.

The first we did was create a Google Classroom for each group. These classrooms were a safe place for the sharing of resources, no-one could enter the classroom without my knowing, and parents could see everything in the classroom, and there was no facility for private messaging meaning that everyone was open to all in the classroom. We used resources that we already had, like sheet music and arrangement recordings that we had taken prior to lockdown, and then we created more resources. This included listening lists of our favourite folk artists, linking in with BBC Bitesize resources, Twinkl and other online learning sources supporting the National Music Curriculum. The participants could also add their own tunes and listening links to share with the group. What now exists is a huge resource bank of different sorts of materials that will be available to use for all the children, young people and adults whilst they are part of the group, even post-covid.

We then moved all the sessions on to Zoom. This was a steep learning curve, not just with the technology, but also on how to engage and successful develop learning in the online environment. It was different for each age group, and it was very clear that the format of the original sessions would have to change and that we needed to introduce new elements into the weekly sessions. However, specialising in learning by ear certainly leant itself to online learning really well, and the learning of the material itself changed very little. The biggest difference was not being able to hear more than one other person in the group

Movement

Screen time was a big issue, particularly early on. We were in a battle against everything else that was now also online, and so we had a find a quick way to keep children engaged in the Folk Factory and to still be enjoying their music making with us. Movement became an important part of this. We introduced a game, ‘Reel or no reel’, whereby a tutor would play a reel or a jig, and the children would have to work out what it was, saying the words ‘sausages’ or ‘Voldemort’ for a jig time, or ‘watermelon’ or ‘Harry Potter’ for reel, and once they had an answer they were to dance. Once everyone had started dancing, we’d pick one dancer to give us the answer. We then expanded this to include more tune types, waltz and hornpipe, and then major or minor sounding keys, linking it in with the aural tests that you might expect with instrumental tuition. This game would break up the session and take place between each activity.

We realised how useful moving away from the screen was, and linking this into our Arts Award programme, we decided to expand on this. We started linking the tunes that we were playing to the traditional dance forms that they would usually accompany. We learnt some rapper setting, a little bit of clog stepping, hornpipe stepping, an An dro and a bit of morris dancing. We would stress how the stepping linked up to the music and the beat, and the children could choose whether they wanted to play or dance from week to week.

Quizzes

The children loved making quizzes, which would have 10 music questions and 5 general knowledge questions, and it was fantastic to see the level of research and detail that some of the children put into the quizzes.

Tune Writing

We decided to use the online session to introduce new creative elements into our music making. It was clear that simply playing along to me on mute for an hour wasn’t going to work, and therefore activities that could encourage more interaction between participants was needed. One of these activities was tune writing. Using a template, we guided each group through a process of composition. First, as a group, we would decide on a tune type and a scale that we could play. We would introduce the idea of a home note (the tonic) and then would work out whether we wanted to move up or down from there. The template worked so well that many of the children in particular, write their own tunes, without our help. Some really brilliant tunes were written from across all 4 groups, and we have put together our first tune book, ‘The Pandemic pieces’.

Video Projects

We took part in several video project in the course of 2020. Sheffield Music Hub did a fantastic large-scale project that we took part in during the first lockdown, with around 500 other children and their tutors across Sheffield. This was amazing to feel part of our community and I know the children had great fun trying to find themselves and everyone that they knew. We then decided to make our own videos. The youth children in particular were set the task of learning how to make a guide track and how to piece certain elements of the video and the music together. The 3 videos that we made were then accepted by Music For Youth’s National Celebration Festival and they were showcased on a national level. We also took part in a ‘Sheffield Carols Project’ where we joined a host of local folk singers and musicians from across Sheffield to record one of our carols, raising over £600 for a local food bank. The appetite for making videos definitely faded over the course of the lockdown.

For the youngest children, the amount of time spent on each section had to be a lot smaller- no more than 10 minutes on each activity, because the concentration levels over the screen were dropping significantly. We added in more games, like Taskmaster tasks, and quizzes, Arts Award and more dancing and moving to our weekly activities of playing and singing. The participants would be muted unless asking a question and would all playing along with me on the piano. I would lead the majority of the sessions at first although other people gradually gained confidence at took over, teaching and sharing tunes and some of the junior children would lead a song or two.

For the youths, they really wanted time to chat and socialise, especially when they were not at school and weren’t seeing anyone outside their families. We split the time into 40 minutes of concentrated learning, and we learnt a significant number of new tunes, and did some brilliant arrangements; the last 15-20 minutes would be their own time. Here, they could stay and just have a chat or do quizzes or generally be teenagers together or come into a breakout room and learn a tune just for fun- this often resulted us having a go at instruments that we didn’t really play, just for fun.

The adults were different again. The quizzes quickly filtered out, and the arrangements weren’t translating as well over zoom. We then made the decision to spend the time learning material that we might not have learnt when face-to-face. As a group, we put together a list of material that we would work through. This resulted in a far more varied number of tunes then what I would have put together myself, and we have certainly started to explore more styles than I would have introduced, which has been a really good experience. It has meant that we have got through a large amount of material, and so it has a been a case of making sure there are a lot more recap sessions happening then before.

Online sessions like this can’t replace the face-to-face sessions. However, they were certainly a valuable part of the last year. We created a little bit of routine, a lot of fun and a place to both be creative and let out some of the frustrations of the time. Things like video making, guide tracks, tune book writing and the Arts Award were perhaps something that we would never have got round to during our usual sessions, and so we were given an opportunity to explore parts of the music world that we wouldn’t usually dedicate time to, and this was immensely useful. It was genuinely a pleasure to see how much many of the musicians improved over the year, to become more confident and well-rounded musicians, some improved so much, and some were just happy to be there and be part of it, which was just as valuable. But I think that the most important thing that the online Folk Factory sessions achieved was a continuation of the friendships and community of support that we had built over the years- if anything the pandemic strengthened this.

Nicola