Even though she has been playing the piano since she was five and she reads music as fluently as she reads English, Vicky Burrill still dreaded singing in front of the class. Now she's had two terms teaching Year 5, it's a different story. "Since becoming a teacher I've lost all inhibitions," she says. "When you're in front of a class of 10-year-olds, you do all sorts of things you would never normally do."
Her musical ability has been a positive asset in her first year of teaching, her keyboard skills particularly in demand for school plays. But not all teachers are so blessed. A survey by the Institute of Education (IoE) published earlier this year found that almost four out of 10 primary teachers could not read music, and some did not feel confident about singing in class. But do teachers need to be able to follow a score to teach music?
Ms Burrill, a newly qualified teacher at Redriff Primary in Rotherhithe, southeast London, says while it is useful to be able to play for the children, knowledge is less important than enthusiasm.
"It is more about your own passion for music. You can teach an awful lot without using formal notation," she says. "Although I can read music, I don't use it very much in class."
The IoE research found that the quality of music teaching at key stage 1 was extremely patchy. Susan Hallam, dean of the faculty of policy and society at the IoE, and editor of the journal Psychology of Music, says secondary heads of music involved in the study were shocked at the range in standard of teaching on offer in primary schools.
"If the quality of a child's music education depends on whether he or she has a classroom teacher who happens to have some basic musical expertise, this is inequitable," Professor Hallam says.
Linda Bance, early years music consultant and co-chair of the primary focus group for the National Association of Music Educators, acknowledges that specialist music training for new teachers is scanty.
Mrs Bance works with PGCE students at Homerton College in Cambridge, but says the six hours they spend on music education in a year barely scratches the surface. "In those six hours we will look at pitch, rhythm, exploring sounds and the exciting things you can do with children to enhance their musical development," she says.
"I give them a curriculum based on songs and the idea that you can let the children decide what they want to do, although there is only so much you can do in six hours."
But she believes an inability to read music does not necessarily hinder a primary teacher's ability to teach it. "Being able to read music is an advantage, but not a necessity," she says. "You need the confidence to start the singing and tease the music out of the children."
This confidence is often related to musical training, however, although she says it would be unreasonable to expect prospective primary teachers to be musicians. "It is always nice when you come across someone who has learnt a musical instrument," she says. "It takes a very extrovert person to suddenly start doing lots of music when they haven't had any musical education."
The good news is that there are lots of resources to help teachers who don't feel their musical ability is up to scratch. The Sing Up programme gives teachers simple songs, combined with movement and activities they can use in class.
Much of it is about giving teachers confidence. "We all underestimate our singing voices and that has a lot to do with confidence," says Mrs Bance.
An advantage of teaching music to primary children is that they are unlikely to be sniffy when you hit a bum note, but a lack of confidence can be infectious. "If you're nervous about singing in front of a class, then they will be nervous about singing," adds Ms Burrill. "Whether you can sing or not, if you go for it, then they tend to go for it."
Georgina Mountjoy can't read music, but says she has no qualms about singing in front of her class. She says teachers at her school, a primary in Southmead, Bristol, are encouraged to sing with the children, both to motivate them and to show it is nothing to be embarrassed about. "All teachers should lead by example, and if the children are expected to sing, then teachers should too," she says.
It helps that she enjoys singing, and believes it has a range of benefits. "I'm really passionate about singing with my class as often as time allows," she says. It livens up the children, is a shared activity accessible to all the pupils, and it teaches about language, actions and rhythms, she adds. Her school also uses the Sing Up website, which features songs about numbers, for example, to support other aspects of the curriculum.
Ms Mountjoy, in her first year of teaching, says the number of resources available means teachers don't need to be able to read music to teach it effectively. Many programmes are geared to teachers who can't read music, and come with their own CDs, so all the teacher has to do is deliver it and add their own imagination and changes to suit their class.
"Music should also be about experimentation and enjoyment. There are better ways to teach about tempo and pulse, for example, than following a music score," she says. The music co-ordinator at her school is on hand to give advice about how to teach singing, and the school runs a weekly singing practice, as well as singing as a whole school during assembly.
The IoE study highlighted research into the benefits music can bring to a child's personal development, particularly in language and group work. But music needs to be taught regularly to produce those benefits.
"Musical skills need to be reinforced with young children, ideally through a great deal of repetition and every day," the report said.
But it acknowledged that schools struggled to find the time for music every day. "The pressure to deliver on the core subjects means that teachers find it difficult to include daily musical activities in their classroom routines."
Ms Mountjoy agrees there is little time to focus on music, but says there are still opportunities to encourage children to take part in musical activities.
"As long as it is brought in as often as possible, whether that's during assembly, singing practice, clubs and lessons, then pupils will start to appreciate, enjoy and learn musical vocabulary and skills," she says.
Even if primary teachers can't always read music, that shouldn't stop children from learning how to do it, says Katherine Zeserson, director of learning and participation at the Sage music centre in Gateshead, which runs an extensive schools programme. "Children of primary school age should have the capacity to read music," she says. "It is about equipping them with the languages they need to achieve what they want to achieve."
She says musical notation doesn't have to be taught by teachers - "we shouldn't be forcing them to add another skill" - but schools could work with music organisations and music services, so children learn how to read music at the same time as they learn how to read books.
"We expect them to read, why shouldn't we expect them to read music?" she says. "It is no more difficult and children can do so much more than we expect."
But while knowledge of musical notation - among both pupils and teachers - may give them an extra skill, there is more to musicality than being able to read music, Ms Zeserson says. Aural skills can be just as important, and a well-developed ear for music can go some way towards compensating for lack of formal knowledge. "If you have notation, you have more tools to control music as a language, but you can still be an accomplished musician. But if you don't have notation and you don't have good aural skills, you can be at a disadvantage," she says.
Vicky Burrill says it would be "quite a jump" to expect primary-age children to start learning how to read music, but says even teachers who can't read it themselves could still benefit from teaching it. "It could be quite an interesting exercise to learn it with the children," she says. "Whenever you are teaching anything and you are learning it as well, the kids really respond."
As Ms Burrill found, teachers with some formal music training are always likely to be in demand, but as long as enthusiasm can overcome a lack of knowledge, there's no reason to think music teaching in primary schools can't continue to inspire and excite.
In on the act
The National Association of Music Educators is holding a one-day conference, Stepping Up, at the Wigmore Hall in London on Friday, June 26. The conference is aimed at teachers and musicians working with children up to key stage 2 and will look at areas including outdoor play, curriculum pegs and teaching styles. Fee is Pounds 15, or Pounds 10 for NAME members. Contact Julie Spencer on 020 8270 6691, firstname.lastname@example.org for details
- Voiceplay is a collection of songs for use with reception and Year 1 and 2 children. It has references to basic music reading, although it is aimed at non-specialists: www.oup.co.ukmusiceducvoiceworksvoiceplay
- Music Express is an all-round resource with no musical reading required: www.acblack.comchildrendetails.asp
- Sing Up, the Music Manifesto's national singing programme, offers training in teaching singing to children, as well as a song bank designed for primary school teachers: www.singup.org.uk