Bring Purcell to life

I believe that there is a really great way to Bring Purcell to life. If you are like me then you are probably looking for ideas to teach the new set works. It isn’t good enough to just listen to them, they need to be studied, unpacked and ultimately brought to life.

Purcell – Music For a While

I got to thinking about how good the Purcell Music for A While piece is for teaching so many different things. This blog will give you some ideas about how you can not only bring this piece to life but also teach the students valuable skills and concepts.

What students Learn

Here is what I feel these two, or maybe three lessons will teach the students:

  1. Melodic dictation skills
  2. Recognising key signatures – major vs. minor
  3. What a sequence looks & sounds like
  4. Musical Problem solving & Team work
  5. Intervals
  6. Creating a ground bass
  7. Reading Bass Clef

As you most likely know the Purcell piece starts with a Ground Bass – the heart of the piece and a great place to start. So I decided to write out each note of that ground bass and also a treble clef and a bass clef. This gave me 26 pieces of paper, 24 notes and 2 clefs. These pieces of paper were then given to my year 10 class who were split in to groups of mixed ability.

Lesson 1

1.1 Each group was asked to look at the notes and work out what they are. They were then asked to start to think about which clef they needed for this task. I obviously didn’t tell them that it was a ground bass piece or even mention the piece, I just gave them the notes and got them thinking. Some struggled with this, but the rich conversations and discussions that went on in each group were excellent. They quickly worked out that it was the bass clef, and this process will depend on how quickly they pick up on the notes they have and the likely starting note. Not every group got it, but, the process is key, the discussion is key. I was amazed listening in to their discussions about the possible keys and how it was unlikely to be a key with an Esharp in and so it is possibly the bass clef.

1.2 “Now you know it is the bass clef can you work out any patterns”. This is almost impossible in some ways, but again, the discussion process is the key thing here. They started to put notes in to groups, look at patterns etc. Some produced scales, others broken chord patterns. It was great to watch and I kept going round to the groups asking them about why they had chosen a specific patten.

1.3 Play them the first 8 notes and ask them the tonality is. Hopefully they will identify it as minor. The next task for them is to then start to work out what minor key it is. This is fun to watch and again I was amazed by the conversations. They were almost arguing the case for different minor keys – “no it can’t be D minor, as we don’t have a B flat”. I let this go on for a little while and then I started to give them some thoughts.

Lesson 1 Conclusion

This is where the first lesson ended. I haven’t given specific timings because that is open to discussion. However I did round the lesson off by looking at what we had learnt. I also ended by singing through the intervals that would be key to the next lesson – 1 – 5, 1 – 8, 1-3-5-8. I hope you get what I mean? I wanted them to get used to singing a fifth, an octave etc. This is a key skill for melodic dictation.

They left the lesson having had some great discussions about the notes, the key and the bass line.

Lesson 2

2.1 Having worked out the starting note and learnt that the melody is in a minor key, students should now start to think about any patterns that might be able to form. They should relook at the notes they have available to them. However at the start of the lesson it is crucial to play them the ground bass – not the Purcell track, just the ground bass, I have it in Sibelius and can send it to you! They need to be able to focus in on the bass line and start to think about the shape of it.

2.2 Now they have heard the track ask them to think about the following things:

  • Are there any patterns?
  • Does the bass rise, fall or a bit of both?
  • Are there any significant intervals in the ground bass?

Play the track again so that they can discuss this. Hopefully they will start to notice the repeated notes – note 1 & 4.

2.3 Once I had given them time to chat and think I started to go round and check on their work and give them pointers. It started to emerge that some groups were getting it, others weren’t. So it was great for assessing them. The groups were mixed ability though and so another interesting aspect to this lesson was the concept of teamwork.

2.4 Having given them plenty of time to chat over this Ground Bass and work it out it was time to see who has “got it right”. I went through the notes and we talked over the intervals and I mentioned their names etc (Major 5th). What I loved was that the students were able to sing the Ground Bass really quite well by the end of the lesson!

2.5 The final thing was to now listen to it again and start to think about the harmony that might exist above it. But that is all for next lesson. So for now I just recapped on all we had learnt, but just about this Ground Bass but also about keys, harmony, intervals etc.

Fun Lessons Work

These lessons were really fun. I made them fairly fast paced and discussion heavy. But students left with a sense of achievement and it was great to listen in to they rich discussions and also it was great to get them singing in order to learn. I am sure there are things you could refine and change, and writing a lesson down is always hard – I should have videoed it or something. But hopefully you can get the idea from this blog. Try it out and then let me know how you get on.

Here is the PDF of the notes:

Purcell Ground Bass

I hope this works for you and that your students and that you can Bring Purcell to Life!


  1. I saved this blog post when you published it, and having just looked at it now with a view to teaching the Purcell in September to Year 11, I think it’s a really fantastic idea, and will definitely try it out. Thank you!

  2. I’ve just done two lessons using your ideas and it went well. I can safely say all 24 of my class are now really familiar with the Purcell ground bass, having listened to it and sung it lots of time! We’ve covered bass clef, intervals, harmony, melodic minor scales… and what’s really great is the impetus to understand these things has come from the students. Teaching in a different way has added a new energy to the class. Thank you so much for sharing your work.

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely comment and I am thrilled that the idea has worked for you. Often when I come up with these ideas I wonder if they will work for others! Sometimes my method of falling upon an idea means that it needs refining and altering for different settings. I am glad this has worked for you! I have a Human Rhythm Machine idea that I am currently working on as well! Keep reading and do share my blog with anyone who might not see it on facebook! Happy New Year!

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