Collaborative Music Making

Apr 12, 2017

The DabbledooMusic Way - How to Practice an Instrument

Practice Practice Practice
The most common piece of advice for anyone looking to learn a musical instrument is “just practice”.
It’s not really the most helpful advice and it’s not quite as simple as that.
Here is a full DabbledooMusic guide that will help you or your child to get better at your instrument and learn to love practicing. In our previous blog, we wrote a beginners guide for parents on the 'Best Musical Instrument for my Child to Learn'.

It’s not just sitting down with an instrument
There are many ways to help you get the practice in. In some ways its like getting someone who doesn't like veg to eat more vegetables. A plate of raw veg isn’t all that appealing. If you put the veg in a tasty lasagne they won’t even know they are eating it.
There are different ways to motivate and encourage your playing without resorting to the old “ just practice for half and hour every day”. Raw vegetables to a veg hater!

Here's our 7 top tips:
1. Play in a group
2. Listen to music
3. Keep the instrument where it’s easily accessible
4. Practice efficiently
5. Play music you like
6. Use the internet
7. Exams: Not the “be all and end all”

1. Play in a group
Individual lessons from a good teacher are the best way for most people to learn a musical instrument but regularly playing in a group is a great way to motivate yourself and develop your musicality. When you play and practice on your own, you are only listening to your own sound. When you play with others you have to play, listen to your part, listen to every else, and try to fit in! This is a new level of musicianship that will help your playing on any instrument.
In a group situation you are not only responsible for your own part but the sound of the overall group. It’s also a fun way to learn and a great way to make friends and socialise through music. You will often learn more from your fellow students than the teacher!
Whatever instrument you play, always look out for opportunities to play with others, whether in a school band or ensemble or in a local amateur group.

2. Listen to music
This may seem obvious but it is very important to listen to music, particularly music that features your chosen instrument.
Practicing an instrument is a physical activity that is controlled by the brain. Listening to music is giving your brain extra information that will help you along the way with your practice and playing.
Listening to music will also give you ideas for songs that you want to learn and the best motivation for practice is learning a song that you love.
If you are thinking of taking up Irish music, here's a short listening guide to get you started:
Irish Music for Kids
3. Keep the instrument where it’s easily accessible
Try to leave your instrument out of its case!
This is a practical tip I give all of my students. The first psychological barrier to practice is taking the instruments out of the case. If you leave the instrument in a safe place on a purpose made stand then all you have to do is pick it up and play.
With younger children in the house this might be a frightening idea but if you choose the right spot and talk to the children about being careful around musical instruments, its worth it.
I am learning the fiddle at the moment and I leave it on a safe shelf in the kitchen. Every time I'm in my kitchen, and have a few minutes to spare, I grab it off the shelf and play a few tunes while the kettle’s boiling. I don’t have a lot of time for long practice sessions but I’m getting 5 minutes here and there and I’m getting better (slowly).

4. Practice efficiently
When you get down to actually practicing your instrument it is important to practice in an efficient way.
Every new song will present technical challenges that will need to be practiced. This means that certain small parts of a piece of music will have to be singled out and given special attention, repeating them slowly until the brain and body can process what’s happening.
Here’s an example of how practicing efficiently will save you time:

The “3 times in a row” trick.
Say you have a song that is 3 minutes long with a very tricky technical bit at the end that last about 10 seconds.
Playing through the entire song 10 times to practice the final tricky part will take 30 minutes. That’s a lot of practice without really addressing the problem.
Taking the tricky part separately and playing it 10 times will take under 2 minutes.
If you take it slowly and gradually build up speed and confidence with this tricky part you could spend maybe 10 minutes and have it perfected.
Now you can play the whole song and you have done some solid technical practice that will help you with other songs in the future.
Always take tricky parts of song as an opportunity to do some valuable technical work. And its more fun than playing scales for technique. This advice was given to me by master guitarist John Williams. If it worked for him it can work for you!

Practice efficiently and you might play like this some day!!!!!!

5. Play music you like
I always encourage my own students to choose their own music as much as possible. It is important for instrument teachers to introduce their students to new music but it is equally important for the student to be playing music they enjoy playing and practicing.
This goes back to the importance of listening to music. Find music that you like on your new instrument and bring it to your teacher. There is no better motivation for practice than finding a song that you really love and learning how to play it. An extra benefit is that this song is already fully formed and understood inside your head. You can probably sing all the parts and you know how it is structured. You might not know you know, but you do.
This makes it so much easier for the teacher to get down to the technical challenges that the song might present. Its always a win-win situation when a student chooses a good song to learn and they often come to me with amazing choices that I would never have thought of!
If your teacher doesn’t let you choose any of your own music, find a new teacher.

6. Use the internet
This will show my age, but when I was first learning guitar I had to tape music off the TV or radio and listen back to figure out how to play songs.
I would stay up late to tape BBC documentaries about Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the 60’s blues/rock and roll explosion that saw the electric guitar become the coolest instrument in the world. I would rewind and rewatch hundreds of times to see how Jimi did that behind the neck slide thing at the start of “like a rolling stone”.

These days, you can find practically any song on any instrument with a choice of Youtube tutorial on how to play it.
Youtube is an incredible resource for learning an instrument but use your ears! If you don’t like someones version of a song, try to find another one.
Here's some great fiddle lessons on Youtube from some of the worlds greatest fiddle players:

YouTube is also a great place to find inspiration for your music practice. Whatever instrument you play there is a range of performances from the greatest musicians available on YouTube. Ask your music teacher for some musicians that they would recommend. A good teacher will be able to find music and musicians that will suit your taste and style.
Going to see live music is another valuable way to inspire and encourage music practice. Unfortunately there are not a lot of child friendly venues so keep your eyes open for family festivals, workshops and events where you can introduce your children to live music.

7. Exams: Not the “be all and end all”
One of the most common things I hear from adults is “I played an instrument and did my grade 3 exam, but haven’t played since”
Exams can be a good way to motivate students and some students prefer to have something at the end of the year to work towards. If the exam becomes the only reason you are playing or practicing your instrument then something is wrong.
Exams in music should be part of a more rounded, holistic approach to learning an instrument as described above. Even when studying an instrument in a formal setting like a third level music degree, a good teacher will encourage their student to explore other pieces of music that are not on the exam curriculum and other ways to improve their musicianship.
Many exam curriculums give very little choice to the student or teacher as to the music they are playing and unless the chosen exam pieces serendipitously match the type and style of music you are interested in, it can become a struggle to find the motivation to practice.
Unfortunately, following an exam curriculum, and nothing more, is one of the easiest ways to teach an instrument and the easiest way to show result to keep parents happy.

Be Careful!
The danger with charting musical progress through exams, is that most exam curriculums assess what is easy to assess, technical performance.
The benefits of learning a musical instrument are wide and varied and individual to each student. Exams cannot assess the development of musical understanding, self confidence, development of cultural empathy, communication skills or the simple enjoyment of playing an instruments.
In short, exams can be a great motivation for learning an instrument but should not become the sole purpose. Students should never be put under undue pressure with music exams. It might be a way to short term success but it could also lead to a life without playing an instrument again and that is too big a risk to take.

As we have seen, there is a lot to learning an instruments and a lot of ways to practice and improve. The good thing is that most of the ways we have discussed are fun and accessible and involve an enjoyable social aspect.
Sitting down with an instrument and physically practicing music through slow and methodical repetition is of vital importance but the motivating factors and situations that get us there are also key.
So to bring back the vegetable analogy; practice is good for you, but make sure it’s as part of a balanced musical diet.

Apr 12, 2016

Thoughts on Music and Society

There are many theories concerning the origins of music in human culture. A wide range of people from different areas of expertise have tried to understand the importance of music today by examining its roots in our collective past. From ethnomusicologists and philosophers to evolutionary and biological psychologists, the understanding of music provides an insight into the very nature of human experience. Music is a feature of every human culture, whether it exists in the form of simple chant or more complicated instrumental forms, music has been part of every known social groupi. Darwin believed that musical communication preceded the technical, descriptive language that we use today, proposing that our half human ancestors developed a communication system of pitches and rhythms, particularly in mating ritualsii. Parallels have been examined amongst primates today, in particular the Gelada monkeys, which communicate vocally through a wide range of pitches, rhythms and timbres. Bruce Richmond has studied these primates and discovered similarities between their form of communication and our idea of music. Richmond suggests that communication in humans began much like the musical sounds produced by the Gelada monkeys, its main and most important function being to build social relationships. They are believed to maintain relationships and even resolve differences through synchronised vocalisationiii. This vital role of musical language in building relationships and group interaction amongst primates may be a reason why music has remained important to us for such a sustained period of time. It is possible that music has been important to the development and even the survival of man, helping to establish communication and intrapersonal skills.

Little is known about prehistoric music as most of our knowledge of musical history relies on the evidence of notation,however music that has been passed down aurally through the generations is an exception to this rule. In Europe, folk music provides an insight into the music of antiquity and although much of this folk music has been recorded through notation and modern recording techniques, it survived over hundreds of years as part of an aural tradition. Bela Bartok was one of the many composers that tapped into this resource by using folk melodies in his compositions and collecting folk melodies. In most cultures, written language predates musical literacy. Even the music of the great ancient civilizations of China and Greece remains largely undeciphered. Although there are written records from each civilization on the theory of music, most notably from Pythagoras, without records of musical notation it is difficult to say what their music was like. Although much is known about the scales, intervals and the instruments preferred by the ancients, the lack of musical notation means that their music cannot be reproduced with any great accuracy. Even in China where musical notation has been discovered that dates from the first century A.D. the exact relationships between symbols is not yet understoodiv. Research by ethnomusicologists like John Blacking and Bruce Chatwin, who studied the music of the aboriginal people of Australia, have found music to have an important role in society, which ultimately offers us us an insight into our own musical past. Whistles made out of bone have been found on the site of some of the earliest examples of cave paintings in France, indicating that instrumental music is as least as old as visual art. From a biological and evolutionary point of view the constant presence of the arts from this distant past indicates their important role in the survival and development of man. The functionality of art is something that is often overlooked in western society but it is the important social and cultural function of art and music that has meant its constant and continued presence in human culture.

It is likely that music and speech share a common past, contributing to a form of communication that combined both. The use of different types of sounds for different social occasions and rituals is something that is a feature of music today, and it often serves the same purpose as it does for the Gelada monkeys. The use of music in rituals and particularly in religious ceremonies is common across all human societies, including our own. Traditional music in Ireland, as in folk traditions in many countries, has a repertoire of songs for each occasion. Whether it was a work song or a caoineadh, (meaning cry), which were traditionally sang at funerals and wakes, music would create a common bond amongst the people present, focusing their emotions or their energy. Working songs across different cultures are often strongly rhythmical in keeping with the repetitive actions of manual labor. Blacking, in his study of the music and dance of the Venda of South Africa noted the strong physical connection that music has for people. The further we go back into musical history the more practical the role of music seems to be, particularly in relation to social interaction. As it is difficult to know much about prehistoric music it is useful to study isolated pre-literate societies and their music. Cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have carried out much research into the music of these people and much can be learned from their musical customs and songs, about our own musical past.
i Storr, Anthony,Music and The Mind,(1992 ),p1.

ii Gurney, Edmond, The Power of Sound(London:Smith,Eldar,1880), p.119.

iii Richman,Bruce, Rhythm and Melody in Gelada Monkey Exchange(Primates,

iv Cole:1974, p 7.

Feb 18, 2014

The Future of Music Education

Here is a clearly laid out, colour coded representation of Pachelbel's Canon. Its a great piece for teaching about ground bass or ostinato, or as a simple group performance exercise. Its a classic hit that kids seem to enjoy across the board, perhaps helped by modern pop references from Black Eyed Peas, Coolio (back in may day) and Green Day.
Although it has a simple harmonic structure and rhythmically aint too tricky neither, it can be tough to get a classroom of kids playing this piece as a group, and without performing it they will have to rely on listening and theory to understand how it works.

Using conventional notation will probably require:

  • transposing into a key that will suit the instruments available.
  • re-writing the individual parts for players or teaching each individual section by rote.
  • writing out parts for other instruments (inc. percussion)
  • teacher will have to conduct performance.
These are all worthwhile steps to creating a group performance but there are many primary level teachers who would feel out of their depth trying to achieve all this in the small amount of time available to them for arts and music.


Using animated notation a group performance can be achieved, in four separate parts using the following steps:

  • Find a tuned instrument that can play the scale of C for the bassline. (C,G,A,E,F,C,F,G)(Repeat)
  • Divide the class into four colour groups.
  • Give each section a different instrument or sound to make.
  • Follow the movements on screen, use you ears, decide what sounds good and what sounds rubbish. Try different performances, learn from your mistakes, get involved!


From teaching using both forms of notation, i find that the most vital difference is that conventional notation implies their is a correct way to do things and that the goal of the exercise is to create a performance as close to the written score as possible. This is often a barrier to creativity and learning for students and teachers.

Animated notation is a more open form that invites creative input from students and teachers, allowing them to explore aspects of the music in a more informal and hands on way. It offers more scope for experimenting with different pitches, timbres and instrumentation. It also places responsibility on the students themselves requiring them to listen more critically to the sounds they are making and how the represent the original piece.

Please feel free to try it out in your class and send any feedback to

    For more visit:

Jan 3, 2014

NYOI Concert tomorrow

The National Youth Orchestra Of Ireland will be performing in the conert hall, Dublin tomorrow at 3. Here's a short Video of soloist Nail O Sullivan and conductor Gearoid Grant, with the orchestra rehearsing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto.

They'll also be performing Beethoven, Bizet and a few Irish bits from Leroy Anderson.

NYOI Trumpet Concerto Rehearsals from NYOI on Vimeo.

Nov 28, 2013

New Animated Score for DabbledooMusic

The latest animated score for DabbledooMusic. This one encourages classes to play along with Pachelbel's canon (now in C Maj). This type of animated score is at the extreme end of the scale in terms of performer interpretation. It is designed for specific learning goals and so needs to be strict in terms of rhythm and pitch.
It does still show how effective animated notation can be in getting large groups of people of take part in group performance with no rehearsal or proir experience. This is helped by the encouragement of a some hiphop and old soul break samples and the keys playing of Johnny "jazz cat" Taylor.

Mar 19, 2013

Graphic Notation for Teaching Music

Conventional music notation was largely invented for, and is most widely used by, professional musicians, composers and music theorists.

Why do we assume that this notation is suitable for teaching music to children?

Well I don't, so I made my own, with the help of illustrator Killian Redmonk:

Nov 13, 2012

DabbledooMusic is a music education project in collaboration with visual artist Killian Redmond. The aim is to create a multimedia creative music resource for kids, roughly between the ages of 6 and 12. the project combines graphic notation, animated notation, composition and performance through activity books and free online resources.

The project also include lesson plans for teachers to make it as accessible as possible for use in the classroom. Dabbledoomusic is based on the belief that creativity and collaboration need to be central in in modern education and that music as a subject, provides opportunities to promote these ideas in very practical ways.

Our first activity book for children will be released before christmas along with an updated version of the Dabbledoomusic website. We hope that 2013 will see teachers, parents and most importantly the children, using these resources to create, collaborate and enjoy music making.