Playing it again with feeling

Reva Klein sees and hears a keyboard arrangement that brings music to life. It seemed terribly appropriate on a wet, blustery, sub-arctic day that the Year 5 class at Christchurch Primary in Bolton, Cheshire should play what I can only describe as the Hovis theme song to greet their pathetically hypothermic visitor. My cockles were immediately warmed. The only thing missing was a great steaming trough of hotpot or have I got my counties wrong?

But forget geography. It was the instrument on which they delivered the comforting tune that I was there to see. Bontempi's Sing and Play is on pilot at the school and class teacher Russell Crocker and his children were having a jolly old time experimenting with it.

It consists of two keyboards: one is very large and is meant to be mounted on the wall as a display. The other is normal size. Both have brightly colour-coded keys that illuminate when played.

When the smaller keyboard is played, the matching chords and notes on the wall display come to life, showing the class how the music "looks". As well as notes and chords, the machine belts out a variety of rhythms, as well as stock songs and tunes, that can be set by the user. Speed and volume controls can also be adjusted.

It's one of those classroom tools that the eye immediately gravitates to. So, apparently, do children's little hands. Headteacher Val Watson says: "It's a very tactile thing. Kids from the ages of four to 11 can't resist touching it."

An obvious attraction of the display keyboard is its size, which is something akin to Gulliver scale in the land of Lilliput. Another, for the younger ones, is its colourful quality, the sort of Euro-childish aesthetic that has become synonymous with expensive fun.

Its most successful and creative application to date has been its role in a project which brought Halle Orchestra musicians into a number of local schools for workshops last November. Russell Crocker describes what was involved. "The theme of the project was Pictures at an Exhibition. We used a range of instruments to create a picture of a castle, gnomes, catacombs, we even devised promenades. One of the activities was getting children to set up a constant beat and we used the Bontempi machine for that."

He also finds it useful for day-to-day national curriculum music teaching, being highly user-friendly for the not-necessarily-musical teacher. It has been helpful, too, in science lessons when Mr Crocker has illustrated pitch of sound. He believes it could be integrated into art and language work, too, with some planning.

The school's recommendations to Bontempi will focus on making the machine more adaptable for teachers in terms of structured notes and access to pupils. Ms Watson believes that while "it is definitely good for early, initial learning", it would benefit from coming with a junction box, to enable small groups of children to use headphones for practising, so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Mr Crocker thinks that more keyboards would enable more children to work on it at a time. Both agree that accompanying suggestions for lesson plans would help guide them in taking the machine further.

The next step in the pilot is to take Sing and Play to the reception class, where the teacher may need to adopt a more formal approach once the children have gone through their initial exploring. If their response is anything like their older schoolmates, it should be a roaring success. As Russell Crocker puts it: "It certainly generates more excitement than a dusty old drum and it's more controllable because you can shut it off".

Sing and Play, which comes complete with wallboard, keyboard, xylophone, triangle, bells, tambourine and percussion blocks can be ordered from the Hope Education catalogue, Pounds 599.95.

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