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Halloween highlights and seasonal songs for the classroom

As the nights draw in and Autumn is well and truly here Lisa Mayo, Head of Gloucestershire Music and the County’s Singing Champion reflects on some of her favourite seasonal music lessons and highlights some resources that might help to give you some inspiration for your own lessons and singing activities in the next half term…

I love Autumn and enjoy getting back into my woollies and boots and going for lovely long walks in the countryside witnessing all the beautiful changing colours of the leaves.  Likewise in school, I found this time of year really inspiring for children and it seemed easier for them to be creative when composing and more emotive and reflective when listening to music.


With wonderful, imaginative and stimulating dates such as Halloween and Bonfire Night there is no better time to get children listening, composing and performing.  I used to pop down to the ‘pound’ shops in town and deck my classroom out with cobwebs, light-up pumpkins and some creepy surprises that would keep the classes guessing and I had some of the best and most memorable lessons in my career!  When you have fun with music then so will the children!

So I’ve put some ideas together as a mere lighting of the touch paper to maybe give you some inspiration for planning some fab and fun lessons of your own after half term!  If you have some favourite seasonal lessons that you would be happy to share then we’d love to hear about them – so send them into me by email and we’ll share them on the Make Music Gloucestershire website.


Danse Macabre:  This is a classic by Saint-Saens and is a wonderfully evocative piece of programmatic music – here is how Classic FM introduces it:

Death is up there on most composers’ radars as a worthy inspiration. Saint-Saëns happened on the subject in the early 1870s, originally setting to music a strange, art-house poem by Henri Cazalis, which has the first line ‘Zig, zig, zig, death in cadence’. Originally it was for voice and piano but, thankfully, Saint-Saëns reworked it a couple of years later, substituting a violin for the voice and adding the full orchestra. When it was premiered at one of the Parisian Châtelet concerts (these took place in the Théâtre du Châtelet) it was immediately encored in full. Since then, it has remained one of Saint-Saëns’s most popular pieces, with television providing endless opportunities to hear it again in theme tunes.

There’s a whole narrative that unfolds in the piece, with the violin representing death himself and the story starting at midnight – hence the twelve chiming opening notes. So it was completely appropriate that the piece was chosen to open the Bafta-winning mystery crime series, from 1997 to 2013. It starred Alan Davies as the magician’s assistant who solves apparently supernatural mysteries using his knowledge of trickery.

If you type ‘lesson plans for Danse Macabre’ into any search engine you will find many resources, lesson plans, PowerPoints etc. that you can download for free or give you ideas for creating your own.

This is also a great piece for introducing children to graphic score, as they can start to respond to the music by finding shapes and symbols to help represent features such as changes in dynamics, texture and identifying structure and theme repetition and variation.

I used to love doing this lesson with Year 7 students (but you could easily do this piece with KS2 students as well) – here is a taster of how the lesson used to pan out!:

The students had to come into the classroom in silence, as I had the lights off and the classroom lit with my halloween fun lights (obviously PAT tested in advance!) and some spooky film music playing!

I would start to teach them a couple of spooky / fun songs at the beginning and then I would ask them to sit and listen to Danse Macabre whilst I told them the story.  I tended to make up my own story based around the poem, as I felt this worked a little better!  At the end I asked them ‘which their favourite parts of the piece were?’…’what instruments they could identify?’ (especially ‘which instrument plays the clock chimes at the start’ and ‘which instrument represents the cockerel at the end?’ etc.).

I would display the themes in notation on the board for the visual learners and to help develop their music reading skills.  I would also play them the separate themes so they could familiarise themselves with the characteristics of each one in order for them to be able to identify them and tell them apart.  This was a great opportunity to introduce terminology such as stepwise/leapy melodic lines; spiky/smooth rhythms and textures; accidentals and chromatic notes.  We’d look at videos and pictures of the instrumentation (or have live demos if the instruments were available) that played the key themes and discussed the techniques involved and the parts of the orchestra they belonged to.

Then I used to spend time at the end of the lesson where we would clear the tables away and I would get them into separate groups to represent each theme.  Then they would have to create a group tableau / freeze frame (creating an image conjured up from the poem) and then from a sitting position on the floor in their groups I would play the piece from the start and they would have to all work as a team in their groups to listen out for their theme and spring up into their freeze frame when the could hear their theme being played.  It was quite a good method to see who was really confident with their understanding of the themes that they had been taught and who were still not quite sure!  This group activity helps the less able to build in listening skills and confidence as well as developing those more able as group ‘conductors’.  Some of the themes are quite similar so there is certainly an element of challenge there!

The Others (Film Soundtrack):

This is probably more appropriate for secondary age students, as it is quite creepy in parts(!) but it has wonderful instrumentation and techniques to get the pupils to try and identify, especially in the main theme of ‘The Others’ and ‘Wakey, Wakey’ i.e. bass clarinet, flute (in it’s lower range), cor anglais, tremolo strings, pedals etc. and has some more unusual keyboard and sting instruments to keep them guessing for a while!  ‘They are Everywhere’ – has frantic orchestral textures and wonderful dissonant moments at the opening.  Also the child humming the nursery rhyme in ‘Communion Dress’ is particularly creepy in true horror pastiche and this is followed by the huge swell of the roaring orchestra with more dissonance and polyphonic textures.  You have been warned!

You can then introduce the pupils to some of the classic horror film musical concepts following the listening exercise:

  • pedals (extreme pitch range i.e. bottom C and top C)
  • chromatic melodic ostinati
  • dynamic extremes
  • unpredictable pulse / use of rests / unpredictable rhythms – to keep the listener on their toes and to build the tension
  • changing nursery rhymes from major into minor or model tonality
  • …and for once I used to let them include some ‘appropriate’ sound fx if they had included all the compositional basics!

Ask the pupils to compose their own short piece of horror film music by using some of these techniques.  When they perform their pieces to each other their peers can use an agreed score rating to credit the techniques they have used from the list and then give a bonus mark for the ‘scare factor’!

The ‘Harry Potter’ film music is also a gem at this time of year, especially ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, which is a great melody to learn to play and a wonderful track to listen to with the magical celesta playing the theme in the opening!


There are lots of great resources out there to help Primary Teachers start singing more with their pupils.  Singing doesn’t have to be given a designated ‘slot’ in the weekly timetable (although every school should have a fab singing club for the children to attend!), it should be integrated into their daily lives to enhance their academic experiences in every subject and help them to learn in a creative and motivating way.  I wanted to highlight some of the resources on offer from Out of the Ark in this blog (although there are many other companies out there that also provide fantastic resources such as Sing Up, Singing Sherlock, Charanga etc.) and pass on some suggestions from them for some pieces which might be appropriate at this time of year.

I would love us to have some feedback from teachers in our county who have some suggestions about pieces that they sing with their children and have a great response from, as it can help others to be inspired and save time in searching for the ‘best’ songs to do in the next assembly…lesson…choir session.  So please do pass on any of your ideas to me by email and we’ll start to share more and lessen the load for each other!

Song Bundles from Out of the Ark – Primary Singing Resources:

Are you looking for a selection of songs for your singing festivals or events?   Perhaps you’d like a bundle of songs?   Did you know that you can select songs from Out of the Ark’s various songbook titles?  You can then even access selected songs via their Out of the Ark Music online account through the Words on Screen™ player – Singchronize®

Songs are available with:

    • Printable music scores  and lyric sheets
    • Words on Screen™ element – interactive lyrics that synchronise with the vocal and backing tracks – making the songs easier to teach and learn.
    • Downloadable MP3s
    • Ability to stream or download the songs
    • Ability to create an expandable library and playlists in your online account of single songs or titles.
    • PLUS additional teaching notes for each song – where available.

If you’d like some more information about their song bundles do get in touch with Anna Edwards

A Few Fun Seasonal Songs:


Song Title



The Niki Davies Book Of Songs For Autumn And Winter Pumpkin Head · A great song, useful for looking at shapes and how to recognise them
· Perfect for younger ages
Songs for EVERY Season Conkers! · A fun song which has become a firm favourite with children of all ages everywhere
· Celebrating the joy of conker collecting
· Articulation

Take a look at their blog post – Do you have what it takes to be a conker conqueror?

Songs for EVERY Season Turn Back The Clocks  • All the essential ingredients of Autumn rolled into a song
• Modulation
• Articulation
A Combined Harvest Picture Of Autumn  • Full of lots of lovely Autumn vocabulary, a fabulous song to sing through the whole season
• Lots of scope for adding your own Autumn rhyming words to replace the verse lyrics
The Niki Davies Calendar Of Songs Crunching Through The Leaves  · Perfect for Autumn, describing the sights and sounds of crunching leaves
• An excellent song to add untuned percussion to

Planning for Christmas Nativity / Concerts?

We’d love to hear about your plans for your musical Christmas events.  Send us your photos, video or audio clips and let us share them on our Make Music Gloucestershire website so that we can start to show the rest of our county how wonderfully rich the singing is in our schools.  So don’t be shy – be the first to get your school’s name ‘up in lights’ and share the achievements with your parents and pupils.  Send any media along with a brief write up to us at and we’ll be sure to post it on our website (please note: any media sent to us should have been checked for parental permissions in line with your school’s policy before sending it to us).

Have a wonderful Autumn and enjoy your festive music making in your schools!

Gloucestershire’s hub – what’s been, and what’s next?

anita-holford-1It’s more than four years since Make Music Gloucestershire was formed.  Anita Holford, who’s freelanced for the Hub throughout that time*, looks back at her experience of this period of change, and has some questions for music educators for the next phase of hub working.

Around five years ago this Autumn, I was freelancing for Gloucestershire Music, helping the team with the development of a new website. There had been murmurings that a change was about to take place in music education, and that things would be very different for county music services in England.

Before we knew it, a little like Alice stepping through the looking glass, we were transported into a world of music education where things were very different.

The Department for Education announced that it would no longer directly-fund county music services. Instead, it would expect groups of music education organisations in each area to bid for funding to form ‘music education hubs’ and deliver on requirements set out in ‘A national plan for music education in England’ 2012-2020.

Shifting our ways of thinking and working

Anyone who works with me knows that I believe in hubs, and in the model we have in Gloucestershire.

The whole concept of hubs was about reaching more children and young people and providing joined-up pathways for them, based on their needs and interests.

This meant supporting the non-school music education workforce (music services, music education organisations, individual music tutors, other organisations working with young people in music) to shift their way of working and thinking.

They would have to work in partnership with schools, which meant moving towards a more market-led approach. The tricky bit was and is, that this needed to be balanced with delivering on the requirements (Core and Extension roles) set out by the new funding.

But the big idea at the heart of this change was that no single organisation could provide that ‘light bulb’ moment for each young person, where they’re switched on to music. Or indeed all the opportunities and support that need to come afterwards, so they can progress as musicians; use music to support their own social, emotional and personal development; or simply develop a life-long love of music.

For many, having an inspiring instrumental tutor in their school, taking part in an ensemble or orchestra, or seeing an inspiring orchestral performance will turn on that light.

For others, taking part in a singing project, world percussion, or iPad music-making programme in their school is far more likely to reach them. Or getting support for their independent music-making in rock, pop and music technology through community studios or out-of-school creative music-making sessions.

Gloucestershire’s model – something to be proud of, and more to do

We have all these opportunities in place in Gloucestershire, and more – either through Hub partners or other deliverers. And they’re pretty well networked and communicated, although there’s far more we can do. We’re also working far more effectively in partnership, as delivery partners and with schools. Again, there’s a long way to go – particularly in finding ways for schools to have a real say and work alongside us, rather than see us as ‘providers’. We also have an exciting, emerging, youth voice strand of work.

Yes, it’s been difficult. Having other providers share the responsibility – and the funding – to deliver on the government’s plans for music has put Gloucestershire Music in a really difficult position. While it’s funding has gradually been cut, it’s had to work in partnership with those organisations who are now, in a commercial sense, taking some of its market share.

And it isn’t always easy working in partnership, putting the ‘greater good’ first and the interests of your own organisation second. But that just makes me even more of a fan of hub working: because it’s hard, and it brings out the best (occasionally the worst), in people and organisations.

In Gloucestershire, the Hub is not simply the music service with another coat on. Funding, decision-making and responsibility for outcomes are distributed amongst a core of key partners (although the County Council currently holds the funding). We’ve had an inclusion strategy that’s been central to our work, and we’ve recently developed a new one to reflect where we are four years on. Those are two things to be hugely proud of.

We haven’t always got things right. The initial model of a commissioning team didn’t give Hub partners enough say in decision-making, or accountability. Initially we didn’t really take account of what young people thought. And we’re still struggling to form effective partnerships with many schools.

And no, we’re not achieving all we want, as fast as we want. The work we do in schools is often short-term which limits its impact; we need to continue to get better at reaching those young people who are facing the biggest barriers in learning and in life; and ultimately we need to keep on improving our numbers and our outcomes.

What’s next?

Four years is not long when you’re creating cultural and systemic change. There are many hurdles still to overcome, so as we welcome the announcement of continued funding for hubs, here are a few questions for us to consider:

  • How can we create a clear strategy that looks beyond Arts Council England/Department for Education funding requirements, measures of success, and timescales, to the difference *we* want to make in Gloucestershire?
  • How can we share resources and knowledge with other hubs to save money and avoid duplication?
  • How can the music service protect itself from further cuts, generate more income, and evolve to meet all young people’s needs?
  • How can we make the case more powerfully for the place of music in schools, and help schools find ways to give more priority to music – in particular those facing the most difficult economic and social challenges?
  • Long-term music education is still something that’s mainly accessible to wealthier families (see ABRSM’s recent ‘Making Music’ report). What changes need to happen in Gloucestershire so we address cost and other access barriers in all our work, as well as in targeted work with young people in challenging circumstances?

* Anita now works part-time for hub partner, The Music Works, as well as continuing to freelance through her business Writing Services.

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