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A dream of a music class

A Glasgow teacher has breathed new life into primary lessons with a system imported from America. Eleanor Caldwell reports

The six-year-olds at St Brendan's primary school in Yoker know exactly what to do as they come in to their music class to the piano accompaniment of visiting teacher Alice Mosley.

On a cheerful musical cue, the children quickly gather in front of the piano and, on a second cue of two friendly but cautionary bass notes, sit down. The register is then taken in song, with the children delighting in chorusing "wrong place!" in disapproving, deep tones to classmates who are not in their normal places.

After a clapping game combining listening, action and testing of rhythmic instincts ("don't clap when I clap"), looks of anticipation melted into absolute absorption as the children listened to a piece of music on tape. Hands shot up to confirm that it was a lullaby, and gentle movement followed as the class rocked their "babies" in time to the music. Hilarity finally took over when the music speeded up and the "babies" were given a bone-shaker ride.

This is the Dalcroze approach to music teaching, developed by a Swiss musician of the same name. It works on the principle of "education for music through music" and focuses on the kinaesthetic or "movement feeling" sense. Put simply, with an appreciation of the structures and sounds of music developed through precisely directed listening and movement, children acquire a more physical feeling for the music.

With a chime bar, for example, a long note is accompanied by a wide sweep of the arm and in song, the "l" sound of a lyric is physically "made" with different right-angled "l" shapes of the arm. So back in the Primary 2 lesson in Yoker, after the children had learned more about the origins of the Shetland lullaby, Baloo Baleerie, and associated legends of naughty fairies, elves and angels, characters were translated into music with their own musical cues and practised by the whole class.

Eyes positively lit up on mischievous faces when The Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg's Peer Gynt cued naughty fairies to tiptoe sneakily round the room. Beatific expressions took over after a quick mental wing change as mischievous fairies turned into angels to the calming tones of Morning (also from Peer Gynt). Individual children selected by the class teacher took enormous delight in performing their roles, including two boys who used their chiffon scarf "wings" with concentrated, rhythmic effect.

Class teacher Margaret Taylor said she was "seeing the children in a different light" and pointed out a little boy with a very short attention span who "really tries very hard in these classes" and others "who would not normally have done this sort of thing".

Alice Mosley's lesson had an apparently effortless energy which was clearly underpinned by what Professor John MacBeath, director of the Quality in Education centre at Strathclyde University, describes as "a strong theoretical base and an ability to manage the task, the group and the individual child skilfully".

American-born Mosley gained a certificate in the Dalcroze method from Carnegie Mellon University in the United States last year and has attended a number of workshops in England and America. She has been using the method for some time in a number of primary schools in Glasgow. She says:

"Teachers in Scotland are looking for more innovative teaching methods in music and, since there's no coverage of Dalcroze in initial teacher training in Scottish colleges, many are now keen to have in-service workshops."

P2 teacher Margaret Taylor is impressed with the method and sees a direct spin-off in children's increased enthusiasm for drama. She says: "It's certainly given me more ideas for music teaching." Headteacher Donal Currie, a self-confessed frustrated pianist, is equally enthusiastic about the positive effect of Dalcroze.

"Music is a priority in St Brendan's, because I feel it can capture the imagination, raise self-esteem and confidence of the pupils and be appreciated by all into adult life."

Alice Mosley is surprised that it has taken so long for Dalcroze teaching to be used and blames it on initial reaction to early teaching of "barefooted children wearing very loose clothes". The approach is strongly reminiscent of the Sixties' Music, Movement and Mime radio programme in which a disembodied voice gave instructions for movement accompanied by music. Dalcroze has moved on from this and with a combination of meticulous planning, attention to the 5 to 14 curriculum requirements and musical skill, offers a new slant on the expressive arts programme.

Having seen a Dalcroze lesson taught by Alice Mosley, John MacBeath describes the "total engagement and relaxed alertness" of pupils. P2 at St Brendan's enjoyed their lesson - one boy "just liked being a naughty fairy". His friend enjoyed being an angel "because I liked waving the scarf".

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