Musical vibrations add a sensory dimension to language development, finds Linda Blackburne
"The music soars within the little lark, And the lark soars" Elizabeth Barrett Browning "This is a bassoon," says Alex. "It sounds a bit like baboon - that's a way to remember it." He kneels on the floor and holds the tall woodwind instrument on its end. "Do you think it's the same size as you?" The two to five-year-olds at the Speech, Language and Hearing Centre in Christopher Place, Camden, shyly approach the strange-looking instrument: yes, it's definitely taller than they are. They touch the polished wood and silver-coloured keys, and watch Alex take out the reed and blow squeaky noises.
This free Chamber Tots workshop in music and movement is being conducted by the education department of London's Wigmore Hall, which has a reputation as one of the world's leading venues for chamber music. The Thorne Trio - Alex Thorneloe on bassoon, Ilid Jones on oboe and Esther Sheridan on clarinet - is playing "spiky" music by French composer Darius Milhaud from Le Coucou in Suite d'apres Corrette, while another group of children stare.
"I was scared of that," says Casey, holding a scrubbing brush which is intended to imitate the spikiness of the composition. Workshop leader Julian West reassures the children and then introduces another French composer, Jacques Ibert. Andantino, from Cinq Pi ces en Trio, is not spiky but smooth, and the children stroke red silk ribbons.
Then Mike Tetreault, a percussionist from New York, plays a huge marimba, a Latin American instrument of West African origin with a set of hardwood plates placed over tuned metal resonators. The children think the huge instrument will make a big sound, but the soft head-hammers strike a gentle tune and they are in awe.
But the simplest of all the instruments at the workshop created just as much interest. Mike held up a Cuban guiro and asked the children to run the stick along the ridges. And the sound of cymbals - from quietly touching in the workshop to ear-piercing crashing in the courtyard - caused great delight.
All the children at the centre have hearing impairment or delay in speech, language and communication. Some have cochlear implants - a device which can help some who gain little benefit from hearing aids. Other children, with temporary deafness caused by repeated ear infections, had hindered normal social and physical development.
The Christopher Place centre, believed to be the only one of its kind in the UK, provides a balance of nursery education and therapeutic intervention provided by an interdisciplinary team. Music plays an important part in the lives of those who come to the centre.
It is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence, but even those who are totally deaf can feel vibrations or hear some sounds. The centre believes music helps children to develop creative and listening skills which will help them in later life.
One in 10 children suffers from speech and language delay, according to the centre, and a fifth of parents in Britain are concerned about their young children's language development. A new pound;1 million wing, which has increased the size of the building by 50 per cent, has provided space to help more children - currently about 50 young people under five are on the premises every day.
The teachers, therapists and parents watching the musicians' interaction with the children were visibly moved. There were curious smiles when the players made their instruments sound like slithering snakes, jumping rabbits and big elephants, and there was loud tapping, clapping and dancing when the Thorne Trio played "Bare Necessities" from the Walt Disney film, The Jungle Book.
Sheba Kraines, the centre's headteacher, said: "I was surprised at the children's spontaneity in expressing themselves in front of a group of strangers. They can become very hyper but because of the music element they loved it. They responded fantastically."
* Wigmore Hall's Chamber Tots community project aims to develop musical awareness through play and integrate music into the general life of the nursery. For more information about events for families at Wigmore Hall, Tel: 020 7258 8240 www.wigmore-hall.org.uk
The Speech, Language and Hearing Centre at Christopher Place: www.speech-lang.org.uk
The Thorne Trio: www.thethornetrio.co.uk
Here are 10 suggestions for exploring music at school and at home.
* Use music at story time to create sound effects or to represent different characters or moods.
* Talk about everyday sounds, introducing words such as high, low, fast, slow, loud and quiet.
* Make up songs with the children, and record the music you make together. A good starting point is when singing occurs spontaneously through play, maybe simply singing one word on two notes.
* Use tunes you know and substitute new words relevant to your children.
* Play games such as musical statues.
* Bring instruments from home into the classroom.
* Give instruments as prizes or presents. You can buy simple instruments from many suppliers, for example, Music Education Supplies, tel: 020 8770 3866.
* Play instruments with control, for example loudly, softly, getting loudersofter or fasterslower, with a steady beat and so on.
* Borrow recordings from public libraries. Try to encourage active listening. Find ways to describe the music, for example "jumping" or "sleeping" music. Build up a collection of pieces and listen to them often.
* Go with children to special musical performances for families.