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A song at the heart

Pupils introduced to music through singing from the first year in school gain confidence in all spheres. Jonathan Corall reports.

When the train goes into a tunnel, I want you to put the song into your head, into your own tunnel." Sitting or kneeling on the carpet in a corner of the classroom, the children from Pimperne primary school absorb the suggestion, then try it out as they repeat their song: "Engine, engine, number nineRunning on Chicago line. . ." They get to the critical moment: a perfect pause, and then the rhythmic song resumes.

These Year 2 and 3 pupils at Pimperne primary school in Dorset are used to working with Andrew Maddocks - but he's not their teacher. His role as an advisory teacher is to help the staff make some radical changes to the way they teach music to the children.

Today he's watched teacher Judy Bristow at work, intervened now and then, and offered suggestions afterwards. "I have no music background, so it's terribly useful to get ideas you wouldn't normally think of," she says later.

Like a growing number of schools around the country, Pimperne has bought into the Voices Foundation Music Education Programme. This puts singing at the heart of children's musical education, and provides ideas and support for teachers who may feel they lack the musical skills to work in this way.

None of the teachers at Pimperne is a music specialist, but since they began the programme last September they've seen significant progress in the work of their 100 pupils. At the same time they've become more confident of their own ability to improve the children's musicality through the use of the voice and the development of their listening skills.

"You very quickly see the benefits: the children are more confident, more tuneful, and able to identify musical elements much more quickly," says headteacher Anne Cunniffe. "As for the staff, our work is much more organised and professional, it's got a musician's feel. We all love it."

This Voices Foundation programme runs counter to much recent music work in schools, where children have been encouraged to create or compose their own music and work with a range of musical instruments. In focusing on the voice, it helps children to understand pitch, rhythm and pulse from an early age.

At the heart of the programme lies the belief that every child has the ability to sing, and that if they are introduced to the language of music through their voice from their first year in school, the resulting growth in skill and confidence will have a positive effect not just on their musical development, but on their learning in other spheres.

It's an approach directly inspired by the work of Zolt n Kod ly. The eminent Hungarian composer was greatly concerned to preserve his oft-beleaguered country's national identity, and to this end collected together traditional folk songs, including many songs for children, whom he felt should be made aware of their national heritage.

This led him into music education, the eventual outcome of which was the creation of a huge number of specialist music primary schools, where children aged six and upwards did an hour's music every day, six days a week. In the early Sixties these schools, which still exist today, became a mecca for music educators from all over the world.

A recent visitor was Susan Digby, who was moved to create the Voices Foundation in 1993 partly as a result of what she found in Hungary. "I saw there that music based on singing contributed to the development of the whole child, and that all children could benefit from such an approach," she says.

Michael Stocks, the foundation's director of curriculum and training, has been a frequent visitor to Hungary. But while he's full of praise for the remarkable work going on in the music primary schools, he's cautious about other countries adopting wholesale what is often called the "Kod ly approach".

"I think there's a danger of it becoming an '-ism'," he says. "As Kod ly himself said, it's up to each country to find its own solution. Our task is to decide how the ideas can best be applied to our own situation."

His own solution, during his 10 years as music adviser for the county, was to create the Somerset Music Education Programme, a complete course for key stages 1 and 2 geared to the non-music specialist. Warmly welcomed by Somerset teachers, it is now used by the Voices Foundation as its principal resource.

The foundation's programme is now being used in some 50 primary schools in Dorset, Yorkshire and London, and will soon be in action in Sussex, Somerset, Humberside and Northern Ireland. But while Susan Digby is delighted at the enthusiastic take-up, she offers a warning to teachers: "If a school is not efficiently run, it's very difficult to operate the programme," she says. "Heads have to be both visionary and good strategists, and it needs the full commitment of all the staff. If teachers have it thrust upon them, they may feel threatened at the idea of having to sing."

The programme is carefully structured over two or three terms. There's an initial presentation and a discussion of a school's needs, then regular in-service training sessions and in-class support, provided by one of the foundation's 10 advisory teachers. Each programme ends with a Singing Day, attended by parents, staff and the local community.

Perhaps the most reliable assessment of its impact is to be found at Oxford Gardens Primary in north Kensington, an inner-city school with no tradition of music and only one music specialist, which was chosen for a three-year pilot programme. "I was sceptical at first, but the effects in the first 18 months have been remarkable," says headteacher Liz Rayment-Pickard. "Inspections have shown that the two pilot classes have made the most academic progress. It's improved children's attendance, reduced the number of exclusions, and brought the staff together as a team. It's been tremendous."

The Voices Foundation, The Poets' House, 21 Earl's Court Square, London SW5 9BY. Tel 0171 370 1944. Growing with Music by Michael Stocks and Andrew Maddocks is published by Cambridge University Press.

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