An Accidental song writer….and Moors, Music and Meditation. Music Education in the primary years, part 2.

Music in education needs seriously investing and thinking about as it is not just an important subject in  it’s own right but it is also a means through which so much else can be learnt and absorbed by a child and should be integral  to every child’s education. A creative and imaginative and child/person centred approach to music can underpin development in so many different areas.

Today I continue to look at music in primary education (7-12), through my own lens as a Kodaly trained music educator. The hallmarks of Kodaly music education remain the same as in the early years; it moves from simple/unconscious/physical learning to progressively more conscious/abstract/head based learning. The approach has  a gently progressive spiral curriculum using rhythm names and  Solfa to create good inner hearing and the ability to sight read. Learning is created in a social, interactive context in very gradual increments so enjoyment, ease and success are natural by products of the musical activities. Music touches on so many aspects of what it is to be human and so many subject areas that it can not help but be a synthetic subject which is holistic in nature. If the early years are the important roots of the “muiscal learning tree”, then this next stage are the all important stem where unconscious and conscious intellectual learning begin to blend together.

Again, before successful music learning can take place the child needs to feel listened to, responded to and appreciated so the building of rapport and the creation of a creative  co-learning environment needs to be created by the leader where each child can try, make mistakes, have a go on their own in front of others, succeed and encourage each other.  These become  part of the culture of the learning group. A “ feeling culture “of absolute non judgement and complete inclusion needs to be modelled by the leader and the children quickly follow.  Individual rapport can be done by individuating attention where possible; eg each child singing or clapping  the name of their favourite activity as a freestyle improv activity at the beginning , or shaking hands with each child as they leave and saying something individually pertinent  to each. Musical learning is aided by sitting in the circle with the children and encouraging the children to  be creative and reflective and come up with their own ideas . This creates enormous enthusiasm and caring, Eg a child came up with a body action to mark out the time for a minim rest and called it “ the hat “  . He observed that it looks like a hat on the page and the body action of rim and top of the hat  makes two actions/two beats. This was then taken up with and appreciated by all.

Musically I would divide this age into two brackets 7-9 and 9-12. In the first age bracket I find that children’s learning works best as a mix of the unconscious play based learning with some elements of conscious work. Any new musical element can be introduced first unconsciously through a game- meaning that a child can do it ,before he/she thinks about it. Eg Syncopated rhythm can be introduced through a sung ring game and then later introduced as a rhythm name on a rhythm card. This means there is never a feeling of something being too difficult- or that you don’t want to have a go. Confidence and enjoyment thus remain as a baseline. At this stage I have found a way to introduce  reading music notation- which many children struggle with in a manner that suits this approach. 

Another holistic educator (Steiner ) said that these middle years of childhood are when children learn best through narrative form. I observe this to be true and as a result have created a sung narrative with a positional story for all the notes on the treble clef stave. The children are shown and sung this so gradually they absorb rather than consciously learn the notation. It can become an improvised call and answer also encouraging solo/turn taking and further creativity. Slowly we use the note names to make spellings and eventually put them together with Solfa – where there is a movable doh. The children have already learnt Solfa independently so this  is the beginnings of putting different simple elements together to make a more complex whole. We make moving Solfa “Harry Potter” staircases with the Doh starting on different notes. This is done very organically and gradually and repeated for a couple of years at least, in small soundbites during the lesson . 

In the second age bracket (9-12), different learning elements start being pulled together. Eventually they are all reading note names and Solfa with ease and can put these to the rhythm names they have already played with – and they are sight reading! Having absorbed relative pitch through lots of jumping jack interval games and songs with these intervals in, sight reading then  becomes something they can hear in their head and can the sing out with confidence. Of course, one does not start sight reading with complicated two parts with complex rhythms but easy singing games. I have found that the children enjoy the whole process of taking a singing game in a book and creating a whole sequence that creates a whole learning cycle. They work it out first by clapping the rhythm, work out the note names, work  it out in Solfa ( having been given the doh  for that song,) they work it though, sing it and then play the game. Their sense of achievement is  so much more than if I had just taught them the game . 

Singing games in these two phases remain the basis through which learning is cemented  and extended. The games get more complex- creating physical co-ordination/body percussion sequences, playing with balls, using the whole class working as a team. There is even a game involving everyone’s shoes! This aids memory skills, co-ordination, sequencing  and team building making it a cross curricular learning. Folk songs, story songs and rounds are introduced and these can bring in elements of history, social justice, geography, extended use of language. These can become an extended point of learning, discussion, questions and answers.

 “Amazing Grace “  and a Ghanian fieId call and response song (Che Che Kule) used in the same session created a whole discussion around freedom, human rights etc. I find story based folk songs, funny songs, African songs and physical singing games are all the learning material that this age responds to. Rounds are gradually introduced and organically become more complex- African rounds seem to be a particular favourite with some quite complex rhythms. Children are so used to turn taking that they think nothing of doing  a solo – each child having a go at holding a round part on their own…they call them “ Sing off’s!”

Kinesthetic learning  can also be used to help make the drier and more scholastic bits of music learning more fun. I took the hand based Solfa approach and created a whole body approach to learn minor scales- with the children’s help we make different body sequences to learn the difference between the harmonic, melodic  and natural minor scales. (This was for the top junior class). Every child was involved, every child was alight with enthusiasm  and every one remembered the differences between them because the learning was engaging, body based and they had used their creativity to create it. I have never seen so much enthusiasm for learning scales. As a result their pitch was also more accurate too. Imagine a whole class of children joyously singing different minor scales as they made body based shapes all singing at their top of their lungs!

In the second age group I invite the children to add their own verses to folk songs- to create alternative endings. This uses extended literacy skills, using and developing new powers of description, language use etc. I then start doing some song writing in the last two terms of junior school putting together all of their learning. I use coloured bricks assigned to the Solfa names eg green brick is doh, red is mi etc. I stick to using pentatonic melody for introducing song writing. This has been incredibly successful and the children have come up with three amazing songs in the three years I was able to do this programme in mainstream school. Other instrumental skills can be used to add to the whole song- providing those tutors don’t mind. These songs are written by the whole group, the melody is written also collaboratively and then put together by the whole group. Some of them excel at this and go away with a song writing bug . They come back with their own songs to share with the whole group. This is also the stage where easy two part singing  is introduced which the children love as making harmonies adds a kind of magic.

In mainstream school I was not given the remit to teach recorder, but in my private teaching practice and in the Steiner school that I previously worked in, I introduced the recorder around 8. This instrument allows a natural progression – it flows on the breath, the instrument is easy to hold and see and play. The note learning is then re- informed by learning the instrument as is  Solfa. Some of the children are naturally more drawn to an instrument than using their voice and this gives them a whole new area of enthusiasm. Learning on the instrument is equally carefully approached. A child is never just asked- at this stage – to just play a piece. First, we clap it, hum it, say the note names feel the note names, hum it  again and then play it. Each step builds on the one before. By the time they play they already have a sense of the whole piece and they then just put it into the instrument. The motto “less is more” runs very true in teaching music to children.

Instrumental learning is a whole new aspect to learning and ideally the child needs to have internalised all the musical and intellectual aspects of music making into himself/herself through the voice first before it is “put into  an instrument`’. This means success is more likely and a child is not put off as so many are by trying to learn everything at once- eg notation, rhythm,  pitch, reading music and using the instrument. Different instruments suit different children- but all start well with the recorder as a secondary musical learning experience. Playing the piano and guitar for instance require the child’s brain to already be able to process many things at once- two hands, note reading, rhythm, different clefs. 

Musical skills and abilities are achievable for everyone- they just have to be taught in a child centred way that understands the developmental phase that the child is at. Music also brings us together, it creates connectivity, artistry, cultural awareness, skill, intelligence ( through developing the learning outlined above). It makes our brain synapses connect in a way nothing else does, it is heart, soul, mind …..surely leaving it out or belittling it in schools makes us  collectively poorer in so many ways?

Next time  I look at using music education for teenagers, adults and special needs.

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