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Complementary accompaniment

Tom Deveson looks at a fresh approach to instrumental teaching from a new publisher


By Richard Duckett and Gary J Price; Classroom Books + CD pound;9.99 Teachers' Edition + CD-Rom pound;19.99; Team World Music Ltd, 2 Reed Mace Drive, Bromsgrove B61 0UJ

Tel: 01527 835878

Music teachers and visiting instrumentalists used to fight border wars over what their pupils needed to learn. They would shake their heads over one another's seemingly stubborn practices - one lot (in caricature) irresponsibly encouraging children to play suspended cymbals with a violin bow or to devise noisy pieces about thunderstorms, while the other lot doggedly worked their way through A Tune a Day and nagged about scales and arpeggios.

This admirable new series doesn't seek to establish neutral ground. Rather, it encourages all practitioners to cultivate territory on which everyone can work in fruitful harmony.

Explorations consists of a series of workbooks, each of which contains an anthology of starting points to make instrumental teaching and learning a creative as well as a practical experience. It complements the traditional tutor by offering open-ended musical activities.

These are presented progressively, so that even young musicians with a mere two or three notes can take part. There is also a 75-track backing CD, offering varied forms of accompaniment using different tempi or spaces in which students can improvise.

The books are an effective way of achieving the "common approach" recommended by the National Association of Music Educators and the Federation of Music Services.

Some activities explore the basic elements of musical language or the essential skills of improvisation.

Players are invited to devise shifting staccato rhythms to an accompaniment or, as an illuminating contrast, to create sets of sustained chords using held notes and then to make them into a sequence.

A later page provides 12 bar motifs, each or any of which can either be combined in a continuous flow or as superimposed textures.

These can be controlled by a group director or, alternatively, decisions about tempo and dynamics can be made by the players. Purposeful listening is learned at the same time as confident playing in work with "questions and answers" or "mirror phrases".

Other pages use more specific approaches to composition. Pupils can improvise a vocal line for two contrasting sets of words and then transfer these melodies on to their own instrument.

Developing descriptive music for specific narrative effects, such as the hare and the tortoise, or for particular settings such as a lullaby or a moonwalk allow discoveries about structure and timbre to be combined in the same piece.

This makes a natural transition to work on the creation and interpretation of graphic scores. Explorations provides examples in which players, using dots and dashes, elucidate phrases and then go on to look at symbols for slurs and silences. Perhaps the most challenging and rewarding activities are those which involve a number of different idioms. A forceful 12-bar blues using just three notes leads on to jazz work incorporating the Dorian mode and a 54 time signature. There is a page of Chinese pentatonics, a page with the Japanese In scale, a page with an Indian raga and a page featuring the creation of an Irish jig. None of these claim to be more than introductory, but the stylistic lessons will be valuable, as will those learned from the use of whole-tone scales, dodecaphonic tone rows and minimalist riffs. These bring a flavour of the contemporary concert hall into the classroom.

The series already covers most of the main instruments taught in school.

The CDs and the pupils' books are carefully arranged to ensure that notations and accompaniments are transposed where necessary. This means that mixed ensembles can be set up without fuss.

The appropriate CD tracks are clearly marked in the pupils' books, so that backings can be used during lessons or as part of practice at home. Every track is preceded by a two-bar introduction, so that tempo is clearly established.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies once observed that "Composing is frozen improvisation". His own practice, like that of other modern composers such as the late Witold Lutoslawski, often allows performers to contribute towards that improvisatory process. This series is written in the same generous and enlightened spirit.

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