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Drum up the lyrics

Anastasia Moloney sees how Colombian children learn language through rhythm

In a nondescript residence in North Bogot , Colombia, Pitti Martinez, the director of Pitt Music Workshops, has the undivided attention of six budding musicians aged between three and six.

The weekly one-hour lesson is divided into five distinct parts. The class begins with a student choosing an instrument which the group will use for the first activity. Five-year-old Alejandra eagerly selects the drums.

Pitti slowly accentuates the names of musical instruments that evolve into a rhyming tale.

"My brother plays a clarinet, my father has some castanets, my mother owns a lute and my sister loves her flute," modulates the teacher as a drumbeat provides a simple rhythm. The students attempt to pronounce these unfamiliar words as they beat on their drums following her hand movements.

"This exercise expands a child's musical vocabulary by introducing new instruments through storytelling," she says.

Moving on to a carpet, students get ready for the week's new musical game.

Each pupil collects a large colourful plastic hoop. Six hoops are placed around the carpet in a circle. Students first stand inside the hoop and are told to listen carefully to a new lyric. Some words act as cues, requiring pupils to stand dead still, move their hands and feet in certain directions or to jump in and out of the hoop. As Pitti circles the carpet, singing and tapping a tambourine, the students move accordingly, trying to remember which particular movements follow certain words.

The game encourages students to listen attentively and follow sequences and instructions which, Pitti believes, "are crucial skills needed when playing musical instruments". The exercise also promotes group work, "because if pupils don't move in the right direction, they end up bumping into their neighbours and spoiling the rhythm," she explains.

The children remain on the carpet for the next activity. Pitti starts singing about an object; a boat, flower, star or triangle. On a whiteboard, she draws the object every time she pronounces its name. The pupils' first task is to shadow her hand movements and draw in the air the shape they see using their right hand first. Next, students use their left hand and then both hands simultaneously to outline the object. Their wrist movements gradually become more defined and confined to a smaller space with each beat. She says: "This develops precise and controlled hand movements and encourages the use of a loose wrist which is later fundamental when playing the piano or violin." Individual plastic shapes (hearts, squares) can also be used for this task, requiring students to trace the curves of the shape with their index fingers.

The pace of the lesson is quick and Pitti immediately focuses the children's attention to a painted screen, which she hides behind. They are unable to see what is happening behind it. This fourth section of the lesson involves pupils distinguishing between the sounds of some 40 different traditional percussion instruments picked at random by the teacher. The eclectic rhythms quickly fill the compact room.

"Sounds like a xylophone," shouts one student. "That's a cymbal," exclaims another pupil enthusiastically. Pitti raises the mystery instruments over the screen once they have been identified correctly. This appears to be the most popular part of the lesson so far. "It's a fun way to stimulate memory and recognition of musical sounds," says Pitti.

With a class new to this activity, various stuffed animals are used first instead of instruments. Pitti imitates the sounds of animals that the students guess. After a 10-week course, pupils are able to differentiate the sounds of some 30 different instruments.

The final task involves pupils learning the words of a Colombian folk song.

Pitti explains, "Since Colombia has 59 different types of music and some 800 annual music festivals, finding songs to stimulate a child's love of music is easy." A different instrument is chosen by another pupil that is used to provide a simple rhythm. This time it is the maracas. The teacher explains the song's background. "A long time ago villagers used to congregate in the main squares to sing these words to a newly wedded bride to wish her luck," she explains. During the piece, students pass round their maracas as and when directed by the teacher. This promotes awareness of the rhythm and melody. Glancing around the group, it is clear that they have quickly picked up the lyrics. The key is to give songs a context. This is done by introducing the song's characters and explaining at which social occasions certain songs are performed.

Pitti, who founded the music school 25 years ago, emphasises the importance of parental collaboration and participation. She says: "I encourage parents to join our lessons and study the songs that their children are learning from the photocopies of lesson plans and lyrics that I provide."

She views music education as an integral part of a child's social development. It is a pursuit that helps to build language and listening skills and group work. It also builds communities. "Who will love their country without music?" reflects Pitti.

* Twenty primary and secondary school teachers from the UK visited Colombia in March to observe how music is taught in Colombian state and private schools as part of the Teachers' International Professional Development Programme, funded and organised by the British Council in Colombia.


What you need

* A box full of different instruments and stuffed animals

* A bank of popular songs

* A screen

* A box containing different plastic shapes

Top tips

* Always review the previous lesson's work Introduce new songs as stories

* Use songs that have a simple storyline

* Be prepared for pupils to get it wrong

* Explain the context of a song - where it comes from, its characters and purpose.

* Devise activities that require movement

* Avoid using pens and paper at first

* Allow students to select which instruments they use

* Give students a copy of the lyrics so that parents can get involved

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