Feb 02

Let’s play some Blues

In a repressed society, artists fulfil a sense of harking back to instant gratification, or immediate expression, by doing things that function on the edge of society, or outside of what is conventionally accepted.
―Bat for Lashes
Instant gratification is like instant coffee, only it won’t keep you up all night.
―Jarod Kintz

The importance of instant gratification must never be underestimated, even as we shun the pitfalls. As a guitar student, I know I “both impressed and vexed” my teacher by practicing, and to a fair degree learning material he thought a year or more down the road, instead of what he assigned me (he told me so in so many words). As a guitar teacher in a music store there was also an economically practical reason to get kids “playing something” as quickly as possible, namely to keep them coming back every week, and their parents smiling. This week’s ukulele lesson will apply some of the approaches I came up with way back then, while hitting today’s (Ontario, Canada’s) curriculum expectations for the age group. 

Today they’ll hear some Blues, play some Blues and with any luck begin to feel their own Blues… in 12 bar cycles of 4/4 time! 

Musical content

I’ll use technology—the ‘TuxUkulele’ track introduced last lesson [video]— to walk them through counting and time signature. They’re already good at the counting part and today I’ll teach a 4/4 conducting pattern, showing patterns of other time signatures in the process. 

Image, conducting patternImage, conducting patternImage, conducting pattern

Conducting Patterns
3:4     4:4     6:8

We don’t have computers with our ukes at present, and I won’t subject them to a lecture with a software demo. I’ll always start with a hello and a review and teaser, but then we’ll get the instruments out and begin strumming and playing notes. 

I’m walking back one step from last week. My goal for today is to do a blues “vamp” on the Bb chord, and a “lick” (also “riff” and yes, “motif”) with a triplet feel over top of it.

With ukes in hand…

  1. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach vamp… with and without “swing feel”
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  2. Teach lick… Swing feel makes no difference. Why? Bends and slides cool, ambiguous major/minor 3rd
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  3. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped; hammer on
    “Blues Major” and “Pentatonic Major” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson

    image, notation and tab for lesson

  4. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped, pinky hovers over frets
    “Blues Minor” and “Pentatonic Minor” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson

    image, notation and tab for lesson

Those are nearby, convenient Bb major and minor pentatonic scale patterns that form a perfect segue into ‘TuxUkulele.’

On the SMART board

(keep this short, unless everyone has a computer with TuxGuitar on it)

  1. Launch TuxGuitar, then open ukelele template
  2. Add swing; tempo <= 60; key Bb 
    • Opportunity to show conducting pattern  
  3. Show scale; play 1st position pattern (2 notes/string) for and with the learners 
  4. Show notes;
  5. Show chord symbols;
    • Opportunity to use conducting pattern  
  6. Repeat for lick (if time and engagement allow)

Back in the real world

  1. turn off software (or use purely as metronome)
  2. listening time
    • Robert Johnson Crossroad Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Charlie Patton 34 Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Howlin’ Wolf Killing Floor [Show lyrics] Is this still “swing feel?” (“straight 8ths”)
  3. Identify lyric pattern, 2+1 form
  4. play, student conductors, etc.
  5. Easy Tux Blues, (using tritone relationship) [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file]



How to read music – Tim Hansen [TEDEd Lesson]


Nov 11

Music Unit—defining dignity, teaching empathy and the Blues

By the end of Grades 7 & 8, students will:

C1. Creating and Performing: apply the creative process (see pages 19–22) to create and perform music for a variety of purposes, using the elements and techniques of music;
C2. Reflecting, Responding, and Analysing: apply the critical analysis process (see pages 23–28) to communicate their feelings, ideas, and understandings in response to a variety of music and musical experiences;
C3. Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts: demonstrate an understanding of a variety of musical genres and styles from the past and present, and their sociocultural and historical contexts.

In this unit students gain musical skills and language while learning to write and perform the Blues. It’s written by and for a guitarist with background in theory and performance, but in a way, I hope, that can be adopted by any instrumentalist, or even by the less musically inclined teacher with support from local musicians.

Musical outcomes:

  • Learners will encounter and engage with elements of music
    • duration, tempo markings
    • pitch
    • dynamics and other expressive controls
    • timbre
    • texture/harmony
    • form

The expectations encourage students to explore issues related to personal identity and community concerns as they interact with increasingly complex and/or challenging media; to critically analyse and evaluate perspectives in works of dance, drama, music, and visual art; to use inquiry and research skills to extend their interpretive and creative abilities; and to use the arts to explore and comment on topics of relevance that matter in their daily lives. Issues of social justice are often highly engaging for students at this age.

Exploration and communication of multiple perspectives and points of view should be emphasized. The arts curriculum for Grades 7 and 8 is designed to engage students in tasks that they see as meaningful and motivate them to learn about and create art works out of interest as well as to meet curriculum expectations. In addition to the materials provided for instruction, students should have access to a wide range of themes, materials, and activities that are relevant to their personal experiences and interests as creators, artists, and critically literate viewers.

— Ontario MoE (2009, pg 131)

Social justice outcomes:

  • Choose a topic based on a personal story involving fairness, equity and/or social justice
  • Write Blues lyrics
  • Compose and perform music in the Blues form

The introduction is based entirely on what I know. My own musical education was, for the most part, highly Eurocentric. Fortunately my musical upbringing was much less so. By the time I was 11 my parents had exposed me to music as diverse as Miriam Makeba, Ravi Shankar, Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach, and Charles Ives.

I take the learners through an admittedly superficial and brief history of the guitar and “standard” notation, what it might have been like to be a musician 400 years ago—Who did musicians work for? What kind of music did they write?—and I play some Western European music.

Cultural Relevance

To be culturally competent and relevant, based on the demographics of my design, I’ll include parallels to South Indian classical music, the Persian origin of the ‘tar’ in ‘guitar’ and influence of the instrument of the same name, the African roots and history of the Blues as a response of an oppressed people to slavery and subjugation.

I teach blues licks, and I teach that if you can say it, you can play it. This practice strategy has parallels in many African and Middle Eastern cultures and reaches the level of a science in South Indian (Carnatic) music’s solkattu and tala system. The Blues and Jazz contain many examples of “scat” singing, which I use in a couple ways to introduce and reinforce the practice.


Day 1

The unit starts with a small concert by me. I set up my nylon string and an electric, with my amp and array of effects pedals in plain view to arouse curiosity. One of my petals is a Roland loop station, which contains pre-recorded accompaniment I will use in my performance. I have a Smart board behind me and my laptop in reach for accompanying visuals. I’ll play short representative pieces from Baroque, Classical and contemporary periods. I’ll show slides of the music notation and the period and say something about each piece. The acoustic pieces—a chaconne, a minuet, some studies and a performance piece—are chosen to highlight a progression from a context of music purposed for religious services and dance, sponsored by the Church and aristocracy, to one of concerts and freelance performers expressing themselves and making statements.

I use Steve Howe’s Mood For a Day to segue into the modern era by asking the class to guess what century it’s from, and whether it’s another dance, study or a performance piece. The Roland Loop Station comes with pre-recorded demos that include a 12 bar blues. I’ll say a few words about the blues, its form, the blues scale and “licks” then jam to demo . I totally show off and shred some blues licks, but make a point of following the form and scale I described. 

I’ve customized the lesson by storing a backing track from a song I know for certain, having visited the classroom where I’ll be doing this, is something we all know — Under Pressure by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. I prepared it using a MIDI file and a Roland Fantom-S keyboard too large to include in today’s setup.  It’s important not to run out of time before showing the ukulele blues video

The school has ukuleles. The goal of the first, introductory lesson is to situate the music they listen to in historical and cultural context and to inspire and motivate the class to want to learn to play Blues and compose some blues of their own. 

Day 2

Slavery, Dignity and The Blues: Use the Smart board and laptop to show some of Dana Gluckstein‘s photos showing the dignity of indigenous people, including Africans. Of each picture, ask the class if the subject has dignity, why do they think so, and what does dignity look like.

End this short segment by showing the picture of Robert Johnson. Remind the learners about the era and Jim Crow. Tell the Legend of the Crossroads. The purpose of this introduction is to plant seeds for the personal stories of fairness they’ll soon turn into Blues lyrics. 

Distribute pre-tuned ukuleles and demonstrate how to hold them. From this point on we begin to see wide differences in talent, experience and musical motivation emerge, which is a challenging piece of every group musical learning experience. Some kids can learn a I IV V pattern their first time with a ukulele, others may be struggling to curl their fingers and press a string behind a fret. 

With the 12 bar blues form displayed, I attempt to show the fingering for 3 chords and split the class into three groups, each one holding their fingers in place over one of them. As everyone counts I conduct, pointing at each group when it’s their turn to play. The V chord group is also known as the “turnaround” group. We can have some fun improvising turnaround rhythms, and begin using “say it then play it” strategies that they’ll use for as long as they remain involved in playing music.

Day 3 and beyond

We’ll watch Does it Swing? An Introduction to Swing Jazz for Young People part 1link, using points in the video to focus learning strategies to continue learning the ukulele and the Blues, for example, call & response, and I’ll use short activities to tie these directly to the musical elements (tempo markings, pitch, dynamics, timbre, texture, form, etc.) required by the curriculum. We continue exploring the social conditions that accompanied the rise of the Blues, it’s evolution through jazz and ongoing influence on every form of music, ever since.

Lesson Resources…

… are stored in a concept map found here. This map can actually be shared with students, who may wish to provide their own suggestions. If there’s interest and the situation permits we may want to use the cmap cloud (and/or provided/available collaboration support).

CMapTools for Learning Design

This map is organized as a concept map, reading top to bottom and left to right. I accept and promote a formal definition of “concept map” as a structured mind map, detailed here. I like the CMapTools software better than several other mapping tools I’ve used for this process because it looks and works identically in a browser, can be shared via a free cloud repository, and significantly: because I can attach many resources to a single node. 

Beyond learning the buttons, this is the first time I’ve actually used CMapTools. At the time of writing the introductory lesson is reasonably well laid out… I’ll play the pieces in order from left to right, and the things I want to show and tell about each, including direct links to things like the sheet music and images from the period, form sub-concept-like columns underneath. The power of CMapTools can be gleaned by looking at the outline dialog. You’ll also see how to develop concepts into propositions using linking words and phrases. Seeing the outline of my partially developed map not only helped me set up my activities more logically, it helped me better understand the rather powerful tool set this definition of concept map brings to the practice of mind mapping. (My linking phrases, especially near the top of the map, need some work!)

I’m comfortable with the delivery and familiar enough with the material that this kind of map, with the links to content, is all I need. But I think it would be easy to make very precise daily lesson plans from such a sketch. I’ll simply drag the nodes around each activity or resource into more clear-cut columns.


Ministry of Education (2009), Ontario Curriculum 1-8 The Arts [PDF]
Blues Kids of America
Nov 24

JavaScript the least of (my) hurdles with MIDI.js

On #musedchat Monday Nov 18 I saw an opportunity to mention an open source Scoring/Engraving tool and was soon encouraged to send more links to open source resources. I’ve been collecting such links in the bookmarks of various browsers for years, and I’ve followed through on my initial interest to various degrees, so in some cases I found myself checking links along with my memory. In one case—MIDI.js—I said a big “Oh yeah! I was gonna try installing that, wasn’t I?”

How easy it is to try out any of the hundreds of thousands of interesting and potentially useful JavaScript offerings one can find on the Internet depends a lot on how much documentation the developer and interested community have provided and good examples of the code in (ahem) “authentic situations.” No matter how good it is, if you want it you’ll soon have to view source and dig in. The code behind MIDI.js looked to me daunting, but on closer inspection it turned out the biggest hurdle was recognizing the playlist of MIDI files is an array of Base64-encoded strings hard-coded in the file. If you know what that is, and if you can encode your MIDI file as a Base-64 string then copy/paste it over the ones in the original example—and if you set up the folder structure identically to the original (clone the Git repository straight into /xampp/htdocs if you work with a LAMP setup like mine)—it just works! But it looks just like the author’s.

The design is not responsive1 and doesn’t fit my blog or mobile device. The colours are very cool but I don’t need them. The note display has so many pedagogical applications my brain is exploding—but it doesn’t fit on my pages, same goes for the player and buttons. The JavaScript knowledge I need is “just enough” to identify where to safely slice and dice the code and recognize the very few places I might change something. It was more important I knew Base-64 encoding is something I’d likely find a web site to do. The highest-level skill needed here is actually CSS. I need to restyle the player so it fits my pages in the contexts I expect it to be viewed. And I want those notes to play along exactly as they do now, just in a completely different layout.

Here’s what it looks like today. (It’s not worth listening to in anything but Chrome).

An undefined error originally came from this line, but I haven’t found where MIDI.lang is supposed to be defined, and the sentence really doesn’t tell me anything I care to know if I define it as “English.” I made sure the page has a title and I even gave it a language attribute but no luck only by hard-coding it as shown below could I stop it so far. Will dig in [to the MIDI object, its properties and methods] later.

// I added...
// Quick suppression of undefined
MIDI.lang = MIDI.lang || 'en-ca';
/// above...
// this is the language we are running in
var title = document.getElementById("title");
title.innerHTML = "Sound being generated with &quot; + MIDI.lang + ".";
// I also added at line 108
pausePlayStop(true);  // Sorry Gasman. Autoplay is just wrong!
// Just above that I see <code>song[songid++%3]</code>, the '%3' implies something hard-coded that applied to the fact there used to be 3 midi files. To be continued... 
Sep 30

LilyPond with Frescobaldi: open source music engraving

LilyPond is open source music engraving software. LilyPond “…was designed to solve the problems we found in existing software and to create beautiful music that mimics the finest hand-engraved scores.” It produces some of the finest looking scores you can imagine, and almost any style of note or notation you can imagine. But it’s a scripting language—which for many people makes it very difficult to learn, and much too tedious to use. Enter Frescobaldi.

Frescobaldi is an open source editing tool for LilyPond. I won’t pretend there’s no learning curve, but if you want to print absolutely stunning music scores and enjoy learning technology it’s worth it, and I’ll help you get started. And if you’re a music educator I’ll make some suggestions about how I might use this in teaching, albeit at a high school level or higher, with students who have already learned the basics of reading. Thanks to Frescobaldi’s built-in MIDI player I see applications to ear training, as well as more obvious help with general notation problems. I’ve also screen-recorded some of my first explorations, and I intend to edit them down and add audio, and continue with a video tutorial, hopefully in just a few days.

Both programs run on Windows, Mac or Linux, but there’s no Mac or Linux installer for Frescobaldi, so if you’re not running Windows you may need some extra skills there. First, download and install both programs using the links below. You will not need to launch LilyPond. You’ll launch Frescobaldi, tell it where to find LilyPond and Frescobaldi will take it from there.

Software links

LilyPond is a music engraving program, devoted to producing the highest-quality sheet music possible. Download

Frescobaldi is a LilyPond sheet music text editor. It aims to be powerful, yet lightweight and easy to use. Download

  1. On first launch Frescobaldi opens an empty document. You type and insert LilyPond code in the left Editor panel and then press the LilyPond icon ion the toolbar to render a gorgeous PDF in the right, or Music View panel. hide image Screen shot
  2. Choose EditPreferences… show image
  3. Set path to LilyPond show image
    Windows default: C:/Program Files (x86)/LilyPond/usr/bin/lilypond-windows.exe
  4. Choose ToolsPreferencesSetup New Score… (Ctrl+Shift+N) to open the Score Setup Wizard show image
     Other items on this list will be of great interest soon… I used the Quick Insert tool and the MIDI Player early in my very first score.

    The Score Setup Wizard lets you set the following up front—especially recommended your first time, as once you create the file you’ll need to get code snippets from the documentation, the other tools in the Tools menu, another file, or know what to type.
     You might even want to fill in all the fields and save a MasterSnippet.ly file for later reference. Frescobaldi also has its own built-in Snippets manager.

    1. Titles and Headers show
    2. Parts show
    3. Score Settings show
       Be sure to try the Preview button!

To get started I just picked 8 bars of a Stevie Wonder tune I happened to have loaded in iTunes. You can see the first 2 bars of the lick on the right of the screen shot below. The script on the left side, which you’d have to write from scratch without an editor, demonstrates rather aptly I think, why a tool like Frescobaldi can likely make LilyPond more useful to a much larger community. What will be much easier to demonstrate in a video tutorial is how I copy/pasted a snippet of code from the documentation into the editor and then tweaked it until I got what I wanted. The notes you see on the right are formed entirely by this part of the script on the left. 'is' as a sharp is not intuitive (unless you speak Dutch), but now that I’ve told you perhaps you can see the 4, 8 and 16 that sets note values, ‘r’ for rest, and the lower case note names, key of B Major. The tildes (~) create the ties, and I entered staccato and accents using the Quick Insert tool shown in the left panel of the final screen shot below.
 All your music goes immediately after the % Music follows here. and before the closing curly brace (}) that lines up flush left with the instrument name above it and the code \score below it (see both screen shots beneath the following code snippet).

// You can group and nest notes in curly braces for readability.
// Here I've grouped each beat within each measure on its own line.
{b4-.} {r16 b16 dis cis-&amp;gt;~}  {cis-. cis16 gis' fis-&amp;gt;~} {fis8-. fis,16 gis}
{b8-&amp;gt;-. cis16 cisis16} {dis16 fis gis b-&amp;gt;~}  {b16 cis16 cisis dis-&amp;gt;~} {dis4-.}

Screen shot

By the time I’d finished I’d opened the MIDI Player to check my work. You need to press the Engrave button to refresh the output on the right (there are further options under the LilyPond menu). Frescobaldi supplies the bar lines based on the time signature in the score settings, and plays audio—I feel those two facts have pedagogical implications. I slowed down my 8-bar passage using Audacity, played them side by side, and by refreshing the output was able to see and hear what I had right and wrong along the way.
Screen shot
I hope this is enough to pique your interest. There’s another LilyPond editor I plan to try soon too, Denemo, highlighted with even more on the LilyPond site. It looks quite sophisticated, but I can tell I’ve barely scratched the surface of Frescobaldi, which was intuitive enough out of the box to keep me intrigued and progressing—getting this far was fun! Please use the comments section and stay tuned for some video tutorials as I get in further.


Richard studied as a teenager with Trevor Payne at John Abbott College and attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has performed across Canada with full-time rock bands since the early 80s. He’s been a teacher of rock, jazz & classical guitar at the now defunct Toronto Percussion Centre, and at The Arts Music Store for many years. He holds the degrees of Bachelor of Fine Arts Music (Special Honours), Bachelor of Education, and Master of Education from York University, plays guitar and trombone, and taught grade 6-8 band at the Toronto District School Board and North York School Board.

Mar 31

When the Diddlies overstay their welcome

or… staving off Pull-off Syndrome

I created this article using My VexFlow, and it appears here in an embedded iFrame. “My VexFlow lets you publish content with beautiful music notation, guitar tablature, and chord diagrams, without the need for special tools. Just type away! ”


Further discovery

My VexFlow lets you publish content with beautiful music notation, guitar tablature, and chord diagrams, without the need for special tools. Just type away!

Mar 31

The right technology for the job

I chose pencil and paper Choosing the right technology for the job depends on many factors. One important factor is fun, and I do have fun making a beautiful print-like chart in Tux guitar. LilyPond offers even more versatility, and now there’s My VexFlow. But some very close friends have asked me to record a Tom Cochrane song on solo acoustic, so I thought I’d share the technology I chose and the criteria by which I chose it.

I just need a guide I can see from where I’ll be sitting or standing, something to look at, to keep me focused in case an engineer or a videographer makes funny faces at me while I’m trying to play. I should only have to listen to the song once to prepare it, and pause playback only long enough to enter what I just heard. I needed the option of misusing Coda and Segno, writing myself notes in the margin, and so on.
—For this job I chose Paper and Pencil 1.0

I’ve heard the full band version a million times but they’ve specified this arrangement. There’re 8 bars where I have to keep time on the guitar while they go a cappella, so I just need a guide I can see from where I’ll be sitting or standing, something to look at, to keep me focused in case an engineer or a videographer makes funny faces at me while I’m trying to play. I should only have to listen to the song once to prepare it, and pause playback only long enough to enter what I just heard. I needed the option of misusing Coda and Segno, writing myself notes in the margin, and so on.

I chose the technology pictured — it took 9 minutes (much less than getting the image off my phone and uploading it, blogging about it, etc!). I made the manuscript paper template in Word 97 if I recall correctly, more recently used Open Office to convert to PDF. I printed it out on a bubble-jet printer, standard paper. It’s a No. 2 pencil.

I chose pencil and paperTux guitar is my choice for lead sheets, if that’s what I need to do, but to place things perfectly, or even to get a full choice of things to place, in the open source world you’ve got the learning curves of scripting tools like Lilypond and VexTab …or pens, pencil and paper!