School of Rock! - Setting up a primary school rock band

Plus -  tracks to listen to at the bottom of the page

If you're lucky enough to work in a primary school where music has a big profile and you are, like me, a frustrated guitar hero, a class rock band may be well within your grasp. All you need to get started are a few enthusiastic kids (preferably with their own equipment), a school drum kit/PA system/practice room (or a space in the corner of your classroom where the gerbil cage used to be) and an hour of free time a week. Easy! But how do you get going?

First things first. Get the kids who play the guitar to show you what they can do. You're looking for two or three who can string together a few simple chords with a steady rhythm (E minor, A minor, C major, G major) and maybe play a simple melody. These few will form the bedrock of the band and you will need to spend a few weeks hammering out a simple chord sequence (see link to mp3 tracks for examples). You can either use a sequence from a well known song if the chords that they can play fit; or just make one up to suit what they can play; the sequence mentioned above works well. If you have access to a bass guitar, its relatively easy to teach one of them to play the root notes of the chord sequence with a complementing rhythm. When you have the chord sequence nailed down as tight as the bursar's purse-strings, then it's time to add the fairy dust.

I like to add some keyboards next, to fill out the sound and make it sound more professional (Oh, just listen to me!!) In the same way that you scouted your guitarists, audition a few keyboard players by just asking them to show you what they can do. Avoid saying it's an audition and they won't be disappointed when they don't get picked. Ideally you're looking for one who can play the same chords as the guitarists (failing this, they can just play the root notes like the bass but just a couple of octaves higher) and one who can play a few solid melodies in time. The chord player needs a nice smooth pad sound that will fill out the space between the bass and the guitars. Give the melody player a simple lead line with a nice punchy synth sound. In both cases avoid the cheesy sounds that try to mimic woodwind and brass instruments. Keep the tones purely electronic.

By this time, if you've used your own chord sequence, you have an original rock song (or 'jam' if you prefer rock-speak) on your hands. You need to continue scouting for a drummer who can keep a steady beat (no frills necessary) and some percussionists. If you have no drummer, modern keyboards have some excellent drum accompaniment that sound good when amplified, and the percussionists can add flavour. The main thing is that they can keep a steady pace without getting overexcited and speeding up, or drifting off and slowing down, which I find are the main two faults with young drummers. Perhaps the hardest role to fill are the vocalists. Not that there is a shortage of volunteers. Since the dawn of X-factor, half the population of any year six class will fancy themselves as star potential. The real challenge is finding one or two who can hold notes and follow a melody. Again, audition and try out and if you are lucky enough to find an Ozzy or a Janis Joplin (we are talking rock after all) keep the vocal lines simple. If you have no luck, stick to playing a 'prog rock' instrumental.

Finally, when you have amassed all you talent and you have your basic chords and melody, work on an arrangement with an introduction, verse, chorus e.t.c., that brings instruments in and out. Find some 'light and shade' and knock up a suitable ending. Simples! If you have really talented kids, they might be able to come up with musical ideas themselves, but don't be afraid to write things yourself; it can save a lot of time and the benefit for the children is in the playing, rehearsal and performance of the piece. When you do perform ,and you will need months of practice and some suitable PA/amplifying equipment to shake the rafters of the assembly hall, the audience will cheer and scream whatever the result (primary school kids are great like that) and the band members will buzz for weeks. It takes a lot of work, but the results are worth it. And lets face it, it gives you a chance to show off your own rock star potential and be hailed as the guitar god that you've always dreamed about being.

If you want to hear the track that I used, plus some of the individual instrument tracks, click on the mp3 links below


Wake up and Wonder guitar track

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Wake up and Wonder keyboard track

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Wake up and Wonder. Full track arrangement with drums, vocals and fairy dust!!

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