Yet another reason why I love Musical Futures International (MFI) – they get a whole class playing along. It’s a perfect example of differentiation. 

Let me just start off by saying I fully believe in playing several instruments. As international school teachers, we expect our students to speak a minimum of two languages, but we know students who speak three or four quite well. Why not with instruments?

How Musical Futures Works

Musical Futures has a ‘Just Play’ system in which students in a class rotate through instruments on the exact same song. Let’s say you have a class of 24 students and your instruments are voice, chair drums (more on that in another post!), ukulele, keyboards (more on that in another post!), bass, and guitars. You are going to have four students on each section. The experienced guitarists will simply be given chords; beginners will have sponges placed in their lowest three strings and will play with simplified fingerings. The keyboardists (and note, these are kids who may not know how to play piano!) will be given crib sheets that show root position chords.

On the screen, they’ll see an animated lead sheet. As the students are learning the piece (discussing its structure, use of chords, improvising solos, etc.), the teacher keeps swapping groups.  “Everybody move to the group beside them and play those instruments!” This gives the kids a foundation on all the instruments found in the room, improves their listening skills because they always have to be focusing on the chord changes on their new instrument, and keeps them from getting complacent (“Sorry. I only play bass.”)

Here’s an explanation of how Musical Futures works:

Play-Along Videos

A play-along video is projected onto the SmartBoard. This video contains chord charts for guitar (differentiated), bass guitar, and ukulele. It also has a keyboard showing how pianists can play by-ear.  Finally, the words to the song are listed across the bottom. 

Oh, and the songs are cool. Musical Futures always has fun, topical pieces that the kids love. 

The pieces are also pretty easy. They typically feature rotating chord patterns, such as Am-G-C-C (like Riptide by Vance Joy). Once the kids have played the pattern 20 times in a row (without noticing, of course), they become “experts” on their instruments. Just as they are feeling comfortable… time to switch!

Everyone switches through all the instruments in the band until everyone has had experience playing every instrument. 

Level the 'playing field' by getting everyone on an instrument... fast!

Why is this so helpful to the IB specifically? Well, at NIS, music is an elective. I have some, but not a lot, of choice in students. For example, if I get 10 drummers in one semester, the school takes pity on me and does some swaps. Otherwise, I get whomever I get.  When it comes to the creative cycle, it’s sometimes hard to put together balanced groups because we don’t want to end up with a pro group and then two groups with absolute beginners who can’t play anything!

Musical Futures supports 'student agency' in group work.

Student agency is about giving students voice and choice in their learning.  Imagine a class in which every single child has experience on voice, keyboard, ukulele, bass, drums and guitar. In this scenario, the kids have much more freedom in choosing their own groups and repertoire. Before, teachers might have said, “Well, that group has three guitarists, so I have to give you a pianist.”  However, now there’s much more flexibility. Now the question might simply be, “Will Bobby be on-task if he’s working with Mike?” The question of feasibility in groupings has been solved by Musical Futures.

I’ve been working on making my own “Just Play” videos, which you can check out here. You can also check out Musical Futures’ workshops here.

Making Your Own Play-Along Videos

Musical Futures is happy to allow teachers to create their own play-along videos. At the workshop in Hong Kong, we were advised on how to start. Create a series of images depicting each chord change. Then, jump into a movie editor (I use ScreenFlow) and change the images’ timings so they naturally change with the chords. This is where I also add the lyrics.

Sample Musical Futures-style play-along image showing Old Rock and Roll chord charts for ukulele, piano, bass guitar, and guitar.