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Here below are extracts from "Music from the Edge of Chaos" written for the Orff Times and the whole of "Making Musical Connections in the Early Years" written to accompany a session given at the National Association of Music Educators conference in Newcastle - September 2005. There are practical ideas here about what I have found to work as well as more general thoughts. One of the purposes of these articles is to join the great conversation so let me know what you think. Another reason for them is to share good books through the references (there are some good ones right at the bottom of this page) I would welcome recommendations for books you have found to be good. Recently published "must reads" are "The Singing Neanderthals" - Steven Mithen, 'This is Your Brain on Music' -Daniel Levitin, "How Babies Think" Alison Gopnik et al and 'Musicophilia' - Oliver Sacks

Music from the Edge of Chaos

Published in the Orff Times Feb 2002

“The edge of chaos is where life has enough stability to sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name life.”

M. Mitchell Walthrop - “Complexity”

The edge of chaos is a good place to be. Our job as both musicians and teachers is to walk boldly in this area.The more flexible we are the further we can venture out on both sides confident of our ability to spring back before reaching the point of no return. My main purpose in writing this article is to persuade you to tiptoe a little further into the area of chaos than you may have been before through doing some jamming. By jamming I don’t mean only the sophisticated sort of improvisation used by the jazz musician although it would include that. I mean simply the performance of music in such a way that variation is possible. We all do it to a certain extent already. It includes both a range of techniques and an attitude and is a powerful stage in both learning and composition that is often ignored or rushed. Let’s start with a look at one example in practice.

Jamming in the Nursery School Playground

“It’s jam, but arranged.”

Eddie Farley’s definition of swing.

I am lucky enough to be the music teacher in a nursery school that has a playground full of interesting things like milk crates, oil drums and wooden building blocks and a staff who allow the children to stretch themselves in finding what they can do with them. We regularly have a jam session in the playground. We have a repertoire of songs that provide a range of good musical forms (Zum Gali Gali, New River Train, Tingalayo, Wheels on the Bus etc.) I give quite strong rhythmic leadership using my mandolin. Children choose the songs and are allowed to come and go and participate in any way they like short of violence. It is very useful to have another adult around.

After one jamming type session I made a note of some of the many different ways that children joined in.

Children were using beaters (dowel sticks) to play a range of things including - the ground, a fence, the side of a shed, hand held percussion instruments, large wooden building blocks, a chair and plastic oil drums. (Most are in some way relating to the common pulse. If things get absolutely out of time I might stop and do some synchronising. If someone is doing a rhythm I like I fall in with it.)

One group built a structure with large wood blocks that was like a drum kit that they sat inside and played. They spent as much time organising and reorganising their set up and defending it against interlopers as they did playing.

A group laid out some blocks in a row and used it as a stage, standing on it Top of the Pops style using beaters as microphones.

One extrovert performed extravagantly and a small group provided him with an audience.

Most children spent some time dancing.

Some children got out plastic tennis racquets and played along, guitar style.

At one point a child who is generally very noisy put his hands over his ears and said it was too loud so we negotiated a halt to the shed playing and all performed a dramatically quiet version of Twinkle Twinkle.

In these very fluid situations an even wider range of responses is possible. One child called Alvin is a real speed merchant. Anyone will be familiar with this type - if there is a vehicle available he (and it often is a he) will be in it, on it, in front of it or behind it and always travelling fast. We gasp at the skilful and fearless way he weaves in and out of obstacles, we envy his fierce joy, and sometimes are afraid that he will end up killing someone.

Alvin screeches to a halt at the edge of the session, a trolley in tow and we sing a song about him zooming around in a car. Half way through the first verse I look up to see him disappearing round a corner in the distance. My reaction is to think he is only interested in zooming about and not receptive to our song but soon he is back wanting the car song again. The minute it starts he’s off at about a hundred miles an hour. We are providing a sort of sound track to his activity, a celebration.

Personal Jamming

If we are to lead our pupils on a creative musical journey we have to have some experience of our own to work from.

"There is an inner life which is the world of final reality, the world of memory, emotion, common sense and which goes on all the time consciously or unconsciously, like the heart beat. There is also the thinking process by which we break into the inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers out of it. That process of raid, or persuasion or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender is the kind of thinking we have to learn, and if we do not somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish."
Ted Hughes - Poetry in the Making

How are we to gain access to our musical fish? We have to start somewhere. Solo jamming is what we need............

You can see that these are simply loosening up exercises. We loosen ourselves physically and also our grip on the structures we have learned so we can recombine things in new ways. A song is stripped back to its framework like the wire frame a sculptor might use. Different things can be built on the same framework or we can take the framework itself to pieces and use only some parts in a different configuration. It may be that parts of the framework itself can be distorted or stretched - one thing that often happens to me in the jamming phase is that melodic lines come in phrases that don’t fit in a regular time signature. I find this a very productive area to work in.

I imagine us, particularly in the droning mode, not as the fisherman in Ted Hughes’ analogy but as divers floating in a sort of primordial soup of musical elements and the patterns that connect them. The patterns in the higher levels might be musical structures like ABAB and on a deeper level scales, rhythms and pulses. Deeper still we swim in unstructured and blended sounds. I imagine individual cells connecting to form chains in random ways. Our own motion affects the ways in which the chains emerge. We collect some that appeal to us. In order to “see” new or less familiar chains we have to loosen our focus. We have with us a set of templates that we can try out on this raw material. The more flexible our templates the more they can contain or alternatively the better we can manipulate our templates the more ways we will find of applying and combining them.The deeper we dive the fewer templates we are able to carry with us.


Learning and Creativity

Jamming is a good way of learning and creating because :

it involves the whole of a person

it provides the repetition that is necessary for someone to own their music and join it up with all their different parts

it helps develop confidence

it enables the absorption of subtleties, fluency and style from the teacher (the model here is that of the master and the apprentice)

it encourages a playful attitude towards structures (turning things on their head, imposing styles or structures from one area on material from another)

it makes an environment where new connections are possible

It involves communication without words.

A creative approach to being a teacher.

Working two days a week in a primary school I have played around with ways of applying a creative approach to the way I perceive my job. I sometimes use the idea that I am an artist in residence rather than a teacher of a subject. This means:

Time tabling myself to be available at playtimes not only to run choirs etc. but to offer children who are keen the opportunity to work on instruments on their own or in groups of their own choosing in their own way.

If I have a spare ten minutes playing the piano or mandolin so that children can hear it as they go about the school. (Most of us I suspect only bring a small part of our own music making to the teaching situation.)

Playing and singing in the playground in summer - an opportunity for children to sing and dance in ways that are wonderful but too boisterous for the classroom.

Thinking of the curriculum as a body of material that carries all the national curriculum things but is really there in its own right as the seed stock of a musical culture that I am growing. As the children get to know the songs they have a body of pieces to work on independently with whatever instruments are available. The pieces, mostly but not exclusively songs, embody a stock of patterns and ideas that are available to them when it comes to creative work.

Incorporating childrens ideas in the way songs are arranged and performed giving them a sense of being involved in building their own culture.

Planting seeds to see if they grow. (For example encouraging the formation of groups with their own name and repertoire.)

Finding opportunities for performance. Our top junior band (xylophones and keyboards) occasionally plays in the infant playground in the summer. As we have a school culture of good, shared, jamming type songs it can be quite a carnival.

We have to be careful in planning our music with children that we build on things they can already do rather than impose our own limitations on them. Look at the incredibly complex patterns routinely acquired by children playing playground clapping games. Let’s think of ways of including them in what we do...........

References :

M. Walthrop Complexity, the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos (Viking London 1993)

Ted Hughes Poetry in the Making in Winter Pollen (Faber and Faber - London 1997)

Steven Pinker The Language Instinct (Penguin -London 1994) see also How the Mind Works

Fred Ledal, Ray Jackendoff A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (The MIT Press London 1983)

Alison Gopnik, Andrew Melthoff, Patricia Kuhl How Babies Think (Weidenfeld & Nicholson GB 1999)

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Wordsworth Editions 1994)

For more on the topic of creative states of mind see :-

Betty Edwards The New Drawing on the Right Side of your Brain (Souvenir Press London 2000)

Edward de Bono Teach Your Child How to Think (Viking London 1992) This is very good on not leaving creativity to chance but teaching the thinking habits that will bring it about.

Guy Claxton Hare Brain Tortoise Mind (Fourth Estate - London 1997)

Making Musical Connections in the Early Years

Steve Grocott - n.a.m.e. conference, September 2005

A great connector

A group of three year olds are learning a sequence of words that make a narrative. They are developing their vocal skills, varying pitch, volume and timbre with increasing subtlety. At the same time they are performing a series of actions as they move about in space, co-ordinating their own movements and sounds with those of the other children in the group. You guessed it, they are playing Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses. Music making has an essential part to play in meeting childrens needs in early years settings. It connects the different faculties within us, emotional, physical, and intellectual by calling them all into play simultaneously. It also connects us with each other. All the rapport building things we do, mirroring, falling into step, taking turns in conversation and so on are present in a concentrated form when we make music (1). Children who don’t develop these skills will be severely disadvantaged throughout their education and into adult life. A significant number arrive at playgroups, childminders, nursery schools etc. needing more stimulation than they have been getting and it is these same children who need to make friends and feel part of the group. So let’s get practical. Here is a detailed look at something that will really create some joined up thinking.

Warming up - waking up all our parts and getting them to work together.

“Banana Splits” (2)

Bananas bananas clap clap clap

Bananas bananas flap flap flap

Bananas bananas click click click ( if you can’t click - pretend )

Bananas bananas flick flick flick

Bananas bananas bump bump bump ( waggle bottom from side to side )

Bananas bananas jump jump jump

We know that setting up a rhythm is one of the most efficient ways of getting a group co-ordinated and focussed on a leader. This rhyme is easy to teach because, there is initially only one word to learn, the leader can demonstrate the action while saying the bananas part and the bumping and jumping is fun.

When we have done it a couple of times and everyone is smiling, we take our imaginary banana, peel it and eat it, tasting and feeling the fruit go down into our stomachs. Engaging the visual and sensory imagination enriches the activity and is generally is a “good thing”. It can be used with all kinds of songs and stories. We now know that it is possible to develop muscles and skills by visualising (3) and that this kind of imagination is a powerful tool for things from pain management to planning a performance or conversation. It is a life skill we all have and is well worth developing.

The neurologists tell us that what happens in learning is that networks of connections are made in the brain on the principal that neurones that fire together wire together. These connections are not confined to the brain in our heads but extend throughout the body. One of my favourite pieces of research, underlining the connection, is one where some people where asked to nod while listening to a recording containing information mixed with opinions. They were told that they were testing their headphones. Those who had been asked to nod while listening agreed with the statements significantly more afterwards than the control group who weren't (4).

Silence is golden

Everyone is now on board so we can start to really focus our attention on working together by introducing not more noise but some silence. The researchers tell us that passive stimulation does not change the brain (5). We throw away the skin. Now there are no bananas. We perform the rhyme again but this time the “banana” is silent. You can get a great concentration on the task and sense of group achievement by using silence. A really good collective sense of timing is established. Our rapport making skills are working overtime. Any song or rhyme can be performed silently. Many songs have the pattern where one more word is left out each verse like Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes. It does sometimes seem as if there are a limited number of patterns and they are just recycled and recombined into different songs.


The universe is a pattern making place. Galaxies form themselves in to beautiful spirals that are echoed on a series of different scales in cloud formations, whirlpools, the forms of shells and pollens. Sand on a drum head that is vibrated at a given frequency will form geometric patterns and when you go on holiday you find on your return that the garden has organised itself into arrangements that you could not have achieved by intervention. We are pattern creating and perceiving animals and will turn those cloud formations into dragons or cathedrals or notice a face peering out at us from a stone on the beach. Pattern recognition is so integral to our perception that we cannot see with out them. We see through them. People who have been blind since birth have to learn the meaning of the patterns of light and shade detected by their eyes before they can tell what they are looking at. For a thorough exploration of this and other brain research and what it means to us see “Human Givens - A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking” (6). Similarly some people who have become suddenly blind continue with an illusion that they can still see because patterns continue to be evoked in their brains independent of the stimulus of visual input (7).

Artists (including musicians), and scientists (including mathematicians) are very much concerned with patterns and experiment with them in a conscious way. In their excellent “How Babies Think” (8) Gopnik Meltoff and Kuhl suggest with a wealth of fascinating evidence that children behave like scientists, forming a hypothesis (pattern) and testing it out. This is also the behaviour of the artist, a musician takes a pattern (a melody, scale or rhythm) and sees what can be done with it.

One of the reasons that working with young children is such fun is their amazing sensitivity to the patterns you present them with. You only have to sing “If You’re Happy and you Know it” or “She’ll be coming round the Mountain” once and they grasp the pattern and join in with enthusiasm, putting the two claps or hoots in the right places straight away. The form is not that obvious if you imagine not knowing it or trying describing it to someone without singing the song. Children do love to experiment with everything - their bodies, instruments, songs, words. I like the idea of being like a scientist testing a song to destruction by, for example, increasing the tempo until it falls apart.

For good music sessions we need a repertoire of good songs (9) which provide the patterns or templates and a repertoire of things to do with them which brings me on to the “jamming” approach.

Jamming - the difference between training and education.

The history of evolution follows a path of increasingly complex organisms that demonstrate a growing flexibility in behaviour and a greater interdependence (10). A baboon has a lot more ways of doing things than an anemone and needs his fellows more for survival. A huge leap in the development of the human race happened when our brains developed to the point where we could do one thing but think about something else at the same time. This made it possible to choose to do things differently. The consequences have been profound. That is what jamming is - it means performing something and being able to choose how you do it. It gives us the potential for variation and innovation. I see it, also, as the place where we practice, through repetition, our skills and consolidate our understanding of the patterns we are using (physical and social skills, rhythms, scales, melodies, forms, lyrics and so on). We make the material our own, mind and body, and we form a group sense of how it should go.

The jamming approach acknowledges the fact that a large part of the thinking we do is below the level of consciousness (11). We have had the concept of “trying too hard” for a long time and now we have a huge amount of information and research that makes clear how much goes on in our brains that is unconscious and how different brain systems may compete with each other at times when it would help us to shut one down. Experiments have show, for example, that people do better on some tasks when asked to guess the answer than to work it out (12)

I do jamming sessions at a different time to the more formal sessions where we do more teaching of new songs and ideas. Children need both. Outside is good for a jam session, there is more space and more noise is tolerable. People can join at will and those who are not actually jamming have a free concert. I use mostly songs the children already know or ones with a strong rhythm that is easy to follow. I lead on my mandolin for some of the time. You could use a percussion instrument just as well for leading.

Planning is necessary. We need to think about the space and seating, provision of instruments and having a repertoire ready. It is very helpful if another adult as well as the leader can be there to join in and help with negotiations over sharing instruments, seats etc. without interrupting the flow of the session. Some instruments are so loud that they make it impossible to play all at once. When I am getting ready for a session I take away all the big drums and have a lot of dowel sticks, shakers and plastic tennis bats for pretend guitars. It is important that the adults feel that they have enough control and are comfortable. It is not necessary to suffer a wild loud riot in the name of awakening creativity although you might want to try seeing how loud you can go for a limited period.

The jamming approach means :

having space for children to choose where they sit and what instrument they have. This includes negotiation with others. The ability of young children to organise themselves can be quite astonishing to people who normally organise things for them.

repeating a song rather than just doing it once

encouraging different ways of performing as opposed to having a set way - (you notice how powerful the programming effect of action songs is when children put down instruments to do the actions of “Wind the Bobbin Up”, for example. We want them to have flexibility don’t we ?)

having space for movement, actions, dancing

letting in different activities - beaters are also microphones or imaginary tools

the leader taking up good contributions and drawing attention to them

teaching by performance as well as instruction

the leader stopping and just listening to allow space for childrens own ideas to form

testing the limits of what is possible before a song falls apart (this could be about tempo, volume or competing interpretations)

changing the words and sounds

not being afraid of making mistakes.

In these situations the music is there like a stream that people can join and flow along with in their own way.

There is no need to abandon the jamming approach if you don’t have a strong performing style or lots of space or instruments. Whatever your style and skills it is easy to include a lot of the jamming ideas to enhance any activity at all in any setting, a set of sticks as seen here is perfect for jamming.

A word of caution. Once you start innovating it can be hard to go back to the official version. Once the mummy bird with the “big fat crumb” has become one with a “big fat bum” you’ve had it. I’m sure this tells us something about learning too, connections are fixed more strongly when there is an accompanying burst of emotion.

References - these are also recommendations.

1 I learned a lot about this and a range of related topics on a course on Communication Skills run by The Mindfields College. Strongly recommended - Tel. 01323 811440

2 Adapted from Ana Sanderson Banana Splits, ISBN 0-7136-4196-7 London: A&C Black,1995

This book focusses on part singing and so is not generally appropriate for the early years but it has very good material for older children.

3 P 53 “Mind Sculpture” - Ian Robertson ( Bantam 1999 ) In a study involving finger flexing a group who exercised increased their muscle strength by 30% while a group who exercised mentally increased it by 22%.

4 I read this in Malcolm Gladwell's “The Tipping Point “ How little things can make a big difference

( Little Brown London 2000 ) which is full of fascinating stuff.

5 Pages 64-67 “Mind Sculpture” - Ian Robertson ( Bantam 1999 ) Robertson suggests that it is possible to educate people to pay attention, perhaps the most important skill of all. Better than Ritolin.

6 P 195 “Human Givens - A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking “ Joe Griffen and Ivan Tyrrell. (2003 H.G. Publishing ISBN 1 899398 26 0) Not just essential information but practical ways that we can use it to improve what we do. Visit This is a quote from the website

“The human givens approach draws on scientific findings, gathered mainly over the last few decades, about how human beings function, and refers to our basic emotional needs (such as attention, security, connection and control), and the innate resources we have for meeting them (such as memory, imagination, problem solving abilities and complementary thinking styles). It is when these emotional needs are not met, or our resources are used incorrectly, that individuals suffer mental distress or fail to fulfil their potential.”

There is a quarterly magazine of the same name and courses for learning skills (see note 1).

7 P 18 “Consciousness” - Rita Carter (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2002) Beautifully illustrated as well as authoritative exploration of how our brains work.

8 “How Babies Think” Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltoff and Patricia Kuhl (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1999 )

9 My “Bright Sparks” is a collection of winner songs that are good addition to the classic Wheels on the Bus type material.

10 “Non Zero - History, Evolution and Human Cooperation” Robert Wright (2000 Little Brown ) - argues convincingly that the history of our planet is one not only of increasing complexity but increasing interdependence and co-operation.

11 This complex topic is explored brilliantly in “The User Illusion” Tor Norretranders (1991 Penguin ISBN 0 14 023012 2 )

12 This comes from “Hare Brain Tortoise Mind” Guy Claxton (1997 Fourth Estate) which covers this and many related topics really well