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Fascinating rhythm

Reluctant singers? The answer is to improvise on instruments, says Rosemary Westwell

A class of 30, a practical music lesson and not a willing singer among the students - what can you do? The answer is simple: centre the music-making on using instruments - the more varied the better. I came across this situation with a number of classes in a local village college.

Within one of these classes were three confident instrumental performers. Two of them played the violin and another the cello. All played to a reasonable standard and it was painfully clear that they would need something more challenging than the rest of the class to become an essential part of the class activity.

The rest were ordinary pupils who liked watching Top of the Pops, but that was the full extent of their musical interest. The classical music their peers played on their classical instruments was not for them.

So, appearing to ignore the delights of Bach, Mozart and Britten, we went straight for easy improvisation - first with rhythmic rounds - easily made up on the spur of the moment with three groups of students following each other in a simple series of finger-clicking, toe-tapping and thigh-slapping. Then the violinists came in playing a simple tune at first, using just two notes: (the open strings of D and A) followed by the cellist mimicking the violin at a lower pitch. Like the drone of a Scottish folk dance the instruments continued drumming out this rhythmic pattern.

As the rhythm settled into a throb, the violinists and cellist were encouraged to improvise their own melodies above this repeated "ground bass", using a five-note scale. Melodies akin to a Scotish jig, a Debussian dance or shades of "Indians on the warpath" vibrated in the classroom.

The instrumentalists were then asked to stop playing in turn until only a quiet drone of the cello and a few finger-clickers remained. It was then my turn and, going to the piano, I played the tune that became very familiar as a coffee commercial: Morning from the Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg. This recognisable melody sharpened the ears of the rhythm section decidedly. Hadn't they heard that tune somewhere before? How does it go? They were keen to learn. It was the turn of the finger-clickers to play, using the five-note scale on which it is based, but using just the black notes of the keyboard - on not only keyboards, but piano, glockenspiels and xylophones - anything that lay to hand. In this way the students were able to perform something they knew quite quickly with little or no musical theoretical background. They not only developed an enthusiasm for rhythm and group improvisation but also gained, as a by-product, greater acceptance of the unconscious but integral part that classical music plays in our everyday lives.

Branching into other well-known melodies, Auld Lang Syne, Amazing Grace and the Sky Boat Song to name but a few, the students gained confidence in their music-making. Familiar tunes borrowed from advertisements became vital ingredients to music lessons. There have been many times when even simple instruments - a couple of sticks or "claves"- have become effective tools for the initiation of reluctant singers into a world of enjoyment they had thought distant and irrelevant.

Rosemary Westwell is a music teacher in Cambridgeshire

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