Education: Voices raised in praise of song: Jane French finds a singalong syllabus in perfect harmony with the national curriculum

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE TEACHING of music according to the standards laid down by the national curriculum causes consternation in many primary schools.

With targets in performing and composing, listening and appraising, it is hardly surprising that non-musical teachers feel intimidated: the terms suggest 'expertise'. The idea of composition seems particularly mysterious to them. So how can schools without a specialist or a tradition in music ensure their pupils experience music as they should?

Music at Haxby Road primary school in York follows, in one sense, a familiar pattern. Children engage in a variety of musical activities with their class teachers, but the main responsibility for music lies with one member of staff, Stella Hall, who selects music for pupils to hear, discuss and compare. She teaches the basics of rhythm and notation, coaches the choir, and prepares the children for school productions.

But above all - and it is here that Haxby Road differs from many similar schools - she sings with the children. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the whole school gathers under its high-domed hall to sing folk tunes, hymns, music-hall songs, selections from musicals, and modern songs inspired by environmental concerns, which the children find especially appealing.

Some would regard this approach as outmoded. But, as Mrs Hall points out, the children enjoy it and absorb a lot about musical and singing styles, rhythm, and vocal production - all of which can be discussed and developed during and after the sessions, precisely as the national curriculum recommends.

In a world where only a minority of children are able to take up musical instruments, singing provides a foundation for musical education that is both cheap and accessible.

This view is endorsed by the British Federation of Young Choirs (BFYC), formed 10 years ago to encourage singing among young people. There are signs of a renaissance in choral singing among the young, with many well-known societies now running successful youth sections. Competitions, including the Sainsbury's Youth Choir of the Year and the National Choral Competition, have also become established fixtures on the musical calendar.

Yet singing is a tradition in only a minority of schools. A 1991 BFYC tion survey, covering more than 3,000 schools, found only one in which children older than 12 sang during curriculum music time, while only a quarter of primary schools offered any part - as opposed to unison - singing.

Since many schools simply did not recognise the value and potential of singing (in relation to the national curriculum requirements), the BFYC recently organised a one-day teachers' course to put its message across. It also hoped to prove to non-specialists that the experience of singing to and with children need not be daunting, nor does it require a voice of operatic quality.

The course, held at the University College of Ripon and York St John, which also provided three of the four tutors, attracted teachers from all over the country and offered a variety of approaches and materials to meet national curriculum requirements.

Bonnie Martin, a senior lecturer in music at the college, used simple, traditional songs and playground games, well within the scope of anybody who can sing in tune, and involving the bare minimum of solo singing on the part of the nervous adult. Although apparently simple, some of these songs and games involve relatively sophisticated co-ordination of music and movement. Some can be sung as rounds.

Others depend heavily upon children's response to the musical beat, and provide opportunities for them to create their own actions or dance movements; the call-and-response variations involve smaller groups of children singing to the rest of the class, which then 'replies'. These can be used as a way in to solo singing. Because this style of music builds so naturally upon traditional children's singing games, it makes an ideal starting point for schools without specialist staff.

Eve Halsey, an experienced freelance music consultant and lecturer, concentrated on developing childrens' and teachers' sense of pitch. She used patterns rather than conventional notation.

'Hot Cross Buns', for example, was rendered thus:

Hot

Buns

Cross

The method can easily be used to record children's own compositions. She also demonstrated the once popular tonic sol-fa system, remembered chiefly from Julie Andrews' performance of 'Doh-ray-me' in The Sound of Music. As well as the familiar names for the notes in the scale, the system includes hand signs, and is still considered helpful by some musicians.

A great believer in extending the scope of children's voices beyond the rather limited range of many contemporary songs, Ms Halsey used her audience to demonstrate an extension exercise. The initially inhibited guinea pigs surprised themselves by reaching a top B flat - among the higher notes in the soprano range.

Both Ms Martin and John Bryan, an early music specialist who is also a senior lecturer at the University College of Ripon and York St John, emphasised the value of dance and movement in their presentations. Mr Bryan used the stately Renaissance 'pavane', which is relatively easy for children to master. It encourages a feeling for musical beat, as well as exposing children to a style of music and movement very different from those of today.

The national curriculum music folder will doubtless continue to alarm some primary teachers and irritate those for whom music is somewhere below the bass line of priorities.

But the experience of Haxby Road school and the BFYC course prove what the national curriculum is designed to ensure - that music is not only the inheritance of the specially gifted nor the province of the middle class. The whole school can participate, and the seeds of a life-long love of music can be sown inexpensively and enjoyably in the experience of simple song and dance.

The British Federation of Young Choirs, 37 Frederick Street, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3BH (0509 211664).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments