Saturday, 18 October 2008


School music lessons. Some love them, some hate them, some just appreciate the opportunity to stare out the window for half an hour. Surprisingly they're still going strong today - I thought they'd have been replaced with more tests, or something less alienating for the tone deaf community, or at least something a little less - well, hippy.

Because the music lesson as we know it was undoubtedly a product of the 1960s. It's all so folky and folksy and 'everyone join in'. You can't imagine Jimmy Edwards leading the class of Whack-O! in a few choruses of We're All Going to the Zoo Tomorrow. Round my way, where teachers with perfect pitch were thin on the ground, it was up to the radio or, best of all, telly to provide the sonic education, most usually in the form of the xylophone-plonking, high-pitch-counting-in Music Time on the BBC. here's a clip from a slightly-too-late edition (Helen Spiers eschewing the floaty blouse and wearing a knee-length skirt, which is all wrong of course).

Anyway, when it came to ensemble playing, there was no getting around the division between those who could play an instrument (ie had grade I recorder) and the vast majority who could just about clap, but that was it. To the rescue came the percussion cupboard, a treasure trove of tambourines, triangles and other weird noisemakers for the musically incapable to hit, scrape, or generally muck about with, including:


How fortunate the proper African name is so close to 'shaker', which is what it basically is. Usually the most 'ethnic'-looking instrument in the cupboard, even though it was manufactured in Nottingham and half the beads on the outside have been idly picked off over the past term. By the third it's threadbare, and an emergency yoghurt-pot-and-dried-pea session is in order.
Mucking about rating: low.


That's 'scraper' to you and me, wary teachers not wanting to tempt fate with the exotic pronunciation. ('Miss, my dad has a guiro every fortnight but me mum has a go at him for spending it all down the pub!') Good one to get as it's quite sizeable, and makes that amusing cockroachy noise so beloved of cheap TV serials to accompany the adventures of a furtive moustachioed lurker up to no good.
Mucking about rating: moderate.


I.e. that drum with a stick in the middle that makes a sound like a cartoon hippo reading Punch magazine. Whoever gets this instantly becomes class hero for their mastery of sonic hilarity for about thirty seconds after it's taken off them for 'mucking about', put back on the high shelf and they're given the last tambourine with a split in the skin instead.
Mucking about rating: off the scale, while you can get away with it.


Missus. Makes that exotic rattlesnakey noise when hit. And does damn all else. Good choice for the lazy pupil, as you can just sit there through the whole recital idly calculating the odds on getting hold of that elusive Everton gold badge Panini sticker, then leap in right at the end with your vibra-slap and steal all the glory.
Mucking about rating: sporadic, but high.


The best one of all, that wibbly-wobbly tinny cross between a bell and a Swanee whistle that's absolutely useless for anything but providing the soundtrack to someone unsteadily transporting a really big jelly.
Mucking about rating: countermanded.


Matthew Rudd said...

Fantastic. There was another version of that drum - it had three strings across it so you could strum with the stick one way then hit the drum on the way back. This was especially good for doing the introduction to Amazing Grace. *Strum Bang-Bang* *Strum Bang-Bang*

At my primary school, it seemed that every female teacher or teaching assistant we had - and we had a lot - could play the piano. Was it a pre-condition of the job if you were a woman?

Phil Norman said...

Oh, you were lucky. We only had one teacher who could play the piano competently (and she wore floaty blouses all the time, natch). When she was off, she was reluctantly replaced by a bloke who really couldn't hack it, resulting in endless 'hang on, I can get this' embarrassment during Come Down, Zaccheus.

Matthew Rudd said...

One of our teaching assistants would always shout 'my bit!' during Think Of A World Without Any Flowers, just so we knew when not to sing and instead watch her rather flamboyant playing.

Steve said...

That Guiro was mistakenly called a Zither in my primary school. Which lead to embarrassment in later life when trying to describe its prolonged use in Chicken Man by Alan Hawkshaw.

FeedbackReport said...

My favourite was that wooden stick with sleigh bells on either end, which one of my sisters dubbed the 'Vickory', after a mispronounciation of the brand name 'Viceroy' embossed on the side. There was great excitement in our household when some Granada Reports footage of Winter celebrations in China revealed one child proudly brandishing a 'Vickory'...

Phil Norman said...

Apparently the official name for that is, er, 'sleigh bells on a stick'. Vickory is miles better.

Planet Mondo said...

I always went for the Guiro - as you could make the sort of percussive strum used a soundtrack to stake outs, stealthy spying and late night street patrols