A box of musical tricks

Elaine Williams lifts the lid on new ways to unlock young children's potential

Music-making cannot start too early in life. It boosts self-confidence, improves co-ordination and concentration, and develops listening skills and engagement in number and language work.

Children who get an early start are more likely to be musical in later years. Under-fives can become familiar with the sounds different instruments make, learn to move to a beat and differentiate between their singing and speaking voices. They may also begin to grasp the concept of a "thinking voice". This is the internal voice you use to hear sounds in your head and which aids musical memory.

But choosing the right resources for fostering musical engagement is crucial. It entails much more than doling out a heap of instruments willy-nilly or banging out simple songs on the piano and expecting children to sing to them. Teachers don't need to have a musical background or expertise but they should be aware of the need for a step-by-step approach when dealing with three to five-year-olds.

This is the view of Dr Cathryn Dew, education manager at the National Centre for Early Music in York, and Susan Hollingworth, a choir trainer and project director for the Voices Foundation based in Scunthorpe. The two have designed a "music box" containing material for a lively, structured approach to music-making - songs, scores, 12 instruments, stories, puppets and a training CD.

Two principles underpin the selection of instruments for the box. Firstly, they all provide an opportunity for small children to make the best sound possible - all of them are designed to be easily manipulated by little hands and to help develop fine motor movements. And the box offers different categories of sound (timbre) - including tuned and un-tuned sounds from wooden and metallicinstruments - and different ways of making sound - shaking, tapping, scraping and rolling.

Many of the songs in the box incorporate one instrument at a time and children have to take turns to use them, so they get to know the sounds and recognise them. Cathy Dew said: "Sometimes in schools and nurseries all the instruments are handed out together and it can get very noisy and chaotic."

A disciplined approach, concentrating on one particular timbre at a time, helps develop social and listening skills, co-ordination and concentration.

Directions accompany each song and story to involve children in singing, playing instruments and movement. Four of the stories and a rap for toddlers are taken from Kaye Umansky's book Three Tapping Teddies (Aamp;C Black). For instance, Umansky's "The Green Wide-Mouthed Tree Frog" is used to explore mouth shapes in making different vowel-sounds, an important singing skill. "Have You Brought Your Whispering Voice" introduces children to different kinds of voices. Cathy Dew said:

"Understanding the concept of a thinking voice is a very good musical skill to develop. Eventually it leads to being able to sight read, to see the notes on the page and to hear them in your head."

Sue Hollingworth, who is training librarians and early-years practitioners to use the box, says the CD that accompanies it allows adults to learn the music before they work with pupils. "It is best to work voice-to-voice with children and to sit down with them at their level. If they can watch you singing then they can pitch-match much more easily. The puppets also help to give them confidence. They will sing to a puppet where they might not sing to an adult.

"Some children get very muddled between their speaking and singing voices - they tend to do quite shouty low stuff and don't find their higher resonance. If you sing voice-to-voice regularly with them (you don't need to play to them) they will find their singing voice. This approach builds up listening skills."

Meet Melody Monkey

"Melody Monkey's Marvellous Music Box", which is being piloted in libraries in the Humber region, is intended for loan to families and early-years groups. It contains 12 instruments suitable for young children, including:

* two bead go-jo bags with Velcro straps to go around the hand or wrist which children can shake, tap or roll;

* a small drum to play with the hand (small children often have difficulty co-ordinating a beater)

* a guirio (scraper) to make long and short sounds;

* three chime bars;

* a booklet with 25 simple songs and stories;

* four bright glove puppets that introduce musical terms - Crotchet Crocodile, Octave Owl, Forte Frog and Melody Monkey.

100 boxes are being piloted in an initiative of Music4U (Humber Region Youth Music Action Zone), funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music and Yorkshire Arts.

For information about the music box and its availability nationally, contact Music4U, The National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret's Church, Walmgate, York Y01 9TL. Call Cathryn Dew: 01904 632220; e-mail: projects@humber-music4u.com. For further details go to: www.humber-music4u.com


* Repetition is important in building up confidence. Doing new things with the same song is more effective than learning lots of different songs all at once.

* Practise little and often - choose songs and stories that are short so they can be slotted into busy schedules. It is better to practise for 10 minutes each day than for one hour a week.

* Introduce finger games into songs to develop the fine motor movements and finger dexterity necessary for playing instruments.

* Introduce body movements and encourage children to move in time with the pulse. This helps them find the pulse (or "heartbeat") of the music, the basis of rhythm.

* Help children learn to recognise a singing voice through singing and rhyming games, to identify the difference between different kinds of voices and to recognise each other's voices.

* Choose songs that the children can sing. To begin with it is helpful to base songs around a minor third (me to soh - like the sound of a cuckoo or doorbell) within the children's range - for example, D to F, E to G, F to A-flat, G to B-flat. This interval forms a natural starting point for young voices. If children are given plenty of opportunity to find where these notes are in their voices they can go on with confidence to more melodic material. Young children can only sing a limited range - approximately from the D above middle C to the B a major sixth above that. Some traditional nursery rhymes are great for children to listen to, but are difficult for them to sing.

* Encourage children to listen and you listen carefully in return. You don't need to sing along with them all the time - often it is good to sing a phrase and let them repeat it without you joining in. This helps to emphasise the importance of listening, helps you to hear how they are getting on and gives them confidence to sing on their own.

* Choose instruments carefully to make a range of different sounds in different ways.

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