Follow those blind mice

24th May 1996 at 01:00
What do primary school teachers need to teach musical composition? In my view, only the first three notes of "Three Blind Mice". Nothing else is required. From these notes - me, ray and doh - an infinite number of different tunes can be composed.

I decided to try out my idea with junior pupils and began by giving each child, or small group of children, their own set of these notes. All available instruments were used: chimebars, xylophones, glockenspiels, recorders - anything with the first three notes of the major scale.

As soon as the notes were assembled, the children were asked to work for a short time (while I covered my ears) on composing whatever they could from their doh ray me. Their task was to produce a simple melody which could be played back to the rest of the class and judged on its merits.

At first, the results were mixed. Some of the tunes lacked any sense of form or balance and others were too complicated to be remembered and performed. But, at this stage, only the exploration mattered.

The next step was to elaborate on it by playing a simple tune myself, based on the same three notes but played in waltz time as suggested below, The class discussion which followed inevitably touched on the musical ideas contained in the tune. There was repetition, for example, - three identical phrases which followed each other. There was balance and form - the deliberate closing of a structured sequence by repeating (and ending on) the last note, doh. And there was rhythm, produced, quite simply, by counting in threes.

The next step was to ask the children to compose another tune, and to develop the ideas we had discussed. Could they use repetition in a different way - perhaps by repeating the first and last phrases only, or even repeating a single note to make an echo? Could they alter the balance and form - perhaps by turning me ray doh into doh ray me or doh doh ray or any other combination? Could they vary the rhythm by counting in anything other than threes?

As the work progressed and as new tunes appeared, the children were encouraged to listen to each other's work and comment on good examples of cleverly-used repetition, balanced form and pleasing rhythms. Examples of "real" songs based on doh ray and me were also learned and sung ("Winter Creeps" for example, and the opening passages of "Go to Sleep, Little Brother Peter" and "In the Silver Moonlight").

When doh ray and me had all but been exhausted, additional notes were gradually introduced. Instrumental accompaniments were added to the tunes and the tunes themselves were turned into songs with words composed by the children. Pre-set musical phrases on computer software were also built into melodies making use of the concepts already developed.

Did the method work? If transforming formless play into playing well-balanced form was the test, I can only say that it worked for us.

Alan Millard is a retired headteacher in Southampton. He is intending to include these ideas in a book, to be called Doh Ray Me and More.

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