Clear as a bell
Tom Deveson looks at the latest attempt to make music accessible to young children
Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? - not the sons of Banquo, but the progeny of publishers, the seemingly endless array of series making primary music available to non-specialists. Familiar as household words too are the ringing promises: "structured progression", "balanced repertoire", "careful differentiation" and, like the trumpet call to battle, "in line with national curriculum requirements".
This new addition to the throng is, like so many of its predecessors, thoughtful, useful, purposeful and hopeful. Written by the authors of Silver Burdett Music, it will eventually be available at seven levels. "Seven" means that, somewhat unusually, the needs of nursery and reception children are provided for in their own volume. This reminds us that musical learning happens between minus-three months and death, rather than the ages 5-14 enshrined in statute.
The first likeable feature of the books is their reassuring, measured and humane tone. "Music is about enjoyment"; "It is important for the children to learn to make their own musical decisions"; "There are no absolute right or wrong answers"; "Make it clear that yours is only one idea"; "Let them choose"; "Never encourge children to talk over music and don't do it yourself." These dicta are found throughout the series and are tolerant or prescriptive in the right places and for the right reasons.
There is also an admirable clarity to the organisation and layout. Each unit shares the same mode of presentation, with targets, keywords, resources, activities and follow-ups all distinctly set out on the page and the rationale for each lesson visible to a cursory glance. Marginal "Watchpoints" range from tips about breathing or instrumentation to philosophical asides about learning and translations of unfamiliar words. The overall plan is one of units covering about half a term's work, made up of about six one-hour lessons; the units are classified both by topic (The Seasons, Animals) and by musical idea (Marches, Repeats and Contrasts) which is an effective way of having the best of both worlds.
The units are organised to make those promises of breadth and balance and progression come true. Work on nursery rhymes involves singing, clapping and moving in time, exploring timbres for accompaniment and then listening (after familiarisation) to all 11 minutes of Quilter's Children's Overture. Work on the seasons involves singing a Russian lullaby, accompanying it with two pitches, composing snow pieces, hopping like Easter bunnies to a steady beat and listening to short extracts from Britten's and Respighi's versions of Spring.
There are a number of occasions when accompaniments will require a chromatic xylophone or glockenspiel, not found in many classrooms. It's worth mentioning, too, that there are fewer composing than performing activities and that most of the composition takes its starting point from listening to someone else's music. It can be more enlightening for children to begin with improvisation and composition themselves, and only then hear the way an adult musician has applied the same means; recognising a chord progression provides a fascinating experience when you've already struggled to use it yourself.
The advice on assessment is provided in a regular set of checklists. These are very comprehensive but at the same time relaxed and non-prescriptive. Teachers are encouraged to look and listen to what their children can do and enjoy. Things like co-ordination are as important as conceptualisation; it's as valuable for children to tick-tock like clocks or bounce like bears as to recognise ABA patterns or identify downward scales. At the same time, assessment is, as it needs to be, built into classroom activities rather than tacked on as a time-hungry extra.
Songs and singing are central to the whole series. The folk pieces are mainly simple and charming; those specially written are sometimes rather hortatory and, though quite effective, lack the spirited idiosyncrasy of those by writers like Jane Sebba and Jan Holdstock. The CDs are very well put together, with a cheerfully eclectic repertoire and a fine clarity of sound, free from banal electronic homegeneity. Pieces range from Shearing to Schoenberg and The Archers to Adams - although it would be nice to hear The Chairman Dances as sheer musical energy rather than a mere exemplar of Repetition.
Only the pictures disappoint: the pupils shown seem to live in a back-to-basics White Kingdom of Nostalgia. But check Sounds of Music out for your children - it's clearly one of the better schemes to choose from.
Tom Deveson is music adviser for the London borough of Southwark