A close shave with a piano lid

10th July 2009 at 01:00

Primary children love music. In my opinion it's vital to the curriculum, and the children at my school are particularly lucky, especially as ours is such a deprived area.

We have three choirs, a full school orchestra and plenty of other instruments. Peripatetic teachers visit each week to supplement all that music, and to raise our best instrumentalists to school orchestra standard. They're always thrilled that our pupils are so enthusiastic about music.

It's certainly light years away from the music teaching I experienced at the start of my career. In my first school, there was hardly any music at all, but Mr Morris visited twice a week, taking classes for half-hour singing lessons. The children would troop into the music room - a disused classroom with an ancient piano in one corner and piles of lost property in the others - and sit down in front of him.

He had to turn his back on the children to play and, since the songs he chose were unbelievably tedious, the children fooled about, singing too loudly or deliberately out of tune.

When they tired of that, they would dig through the lost property and throw things at each other as soon as Mr Morris wasn't looking. Invariably, when I collected my pupils, some would be crying because the throwing had progressed from rolled-up socks to old shoes. Very soon, I was taking my guitar into school and making my own music.

Miss Jameson, at my next school, was also a visiting teacher. Although highly accomplished - she played piano, recorder and flute - she was an exceptionally nervous lady whom I thought would have been more comfortable in a small private school.

She was also extremely short-sighted, and couldn't cope with teaching the recorder to more than six children at a time. After six months, the honking noises the children produced hadn't changed much, but Miss Jameson was such a kindly lady, the head hadn't the heart to move her on.

Her poor eyesight proved a real hazard in the staffroom. Once, I inadvertently put my plate with a doughnut on the floor while I talked to a colleague. When I turned back, it had vanished. Then I realised Miss Jameson had walked across the room and was now standing at the noticeboard, my doughnut neatly impaled on a high-heeled shoe.

But for sheer eccentricity, Miss Bakewell in my third school beat them all. She was appointed to teach recorder to the juniors and play the piano in assembly. When seated at the piano, she became totally at one with her instrument. Ashkenazy would have given her a sticker for style and concentration.

School concerts were her forte. On these occasions, she rose magnificently to the challenge, embroidering whatever songs the children were singing with a lengthy introduction and a dexterous display of fingerwork. The children stared, fascinated, as she swayed in time to her playing, hammering the keys formidably as she reached musical climaxes - all except Mark.

Mark was not only small, but also very naughty, and he didn't relish sitting still during formal events. At one Christmas concert, he'd been manoeuvred by his teacher into a position under the piano keyboard, where it was thought he couldn't fiddle with anything. Miss Bakewell reached a thunderous finale and lifted her hands exultantly from the keyboard, just in time to see a small hand appear over the black notes and whack an F-sharp. For a moment, Miss Bakewell was stunned. Then, infuriated, she slammed the lid of her piano down.

How she avoided severing Mark's fingers I'll never know, but in future music lessons, it was noticeable that children kept a respectful distance between themselves and Miss Bakewell's piano.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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