Jam today

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Tune in to the wealth of music waiting to be discovered on the airwaves, says Tom Deveson

The world of schools music broadcasting lets your children meet inspirational figures, living, dead and imaginary. On the airwaves, Captain Hook and Mr Toad join forces with Jools Holland, Sir William Walton with Anansi the Spider Man, and Richard Wagner is jamming with Katherine Tickell and Courtney Pine.

BBC radio continues to supply the newest compositions for the youngest children. In Let's Sing, key stage 1 children learned lots of catchy songs about animals and people, and then met the same characters in a Big Book during literacy lessons. Teachers have enjoyed the fact that the programmes have a little appendix where practical music games are demonstrated for the non-specialist.

Early next year, Let's Sing a Story will bring Anansi and Cinderella into the repertoire, the latter in a modern setting. For slightly older children, Time and Tune has transformed The Wind in the Willows into an attractive and performable class musical. The teachers' book contains excellent follow-up ideas, and gives chords as well as melody lines so junior guitarists and xylophonists can form a band. Next year, children can sing and fly with Peter Pan in an entirely new programme, visiting a Never-Never Land cheerfully different from mundane classroom reality.

Singing and listening lead naturally to performing and composing. In Karaoke (4Learning) younger children memorise short melodies that involve controlling and using the voice in many different ways. The "machine" containing both words and music becomes a beguiling metaphor that brings children into contact with all kinds of styles - some rough-scraping folk fiddle with Anansi, a tabla player who accompanies a story about a raja with big ears.

Watch (BBC) introduces a wonderful selection of Walton's music in connection with an expressive arts pack, The Land of All Weathers. A first-rate bundle of ideas encourages children to complement the composer's creative energies with their own.

Some of the greatest music ever written appears in Wagner's Ring cycle. The 4Learning team has performed a miracle of compression, fitting a 16-hour drama into a 30-minute video, without losing the essentials. Puppets act out a wordless story, with glowing background colours tempting those whose taste for dwarves, giants, heroes and magic has been whetted by Tolkien.

Unfakeable shivers move down the spine as the Rhinegold theme emerges, at the nastiness of Alberich, the dignified brooding of Wotan, the tempestuous ride of the Valkyries. We're spared the incest, but we get the Woodbird, the dragon's blood and Siegfried's death and funeral. The marvellous Redemption theme crowns the whole.

There's more scope for KS2 composition in some revived programmes. Music Search (4Learning) starts from the elements of musical language and then takes us on a long but always interesting and imaginative journey. Dynamics features the sea in an angry mood and Bjork's voice; Timbre introduces Stomp, John Cage's piano and the wheels and whistles of a speeding train.

Tartan Jam (4Learning) shows there's far more to Scottish music than pipes and kilts. It features the sensuous "waulking" songs that accompanied the final stages of cloth-weaving, as well as "mouth music" in which the human voice incorporates rock techniques to play dances combining traditional and contemporary sounds. Listen out for more songs from north of the border when Macbeth strides into Music Workshop (BBC) next spring.

Pupils at KS3 also have exciting things to do. Pitch Fever (4Learning) shows them taking commissions as composers, rejecting as well as choosing from possible models such as Oasis or a Levis ad, and analysing what they hear. They also encounter Sally Beamish and the finale of her 2nd symphony.

The formal inspiration (a rondo) and the sensory stimulus (the sea) meet on piano and then in orchestra - but the last word and sound is always the pupils' own.

Cool Keys (BBC) was reviewed with great enthusiasm in The TES last December. Introducing jazz and improvisation, it puts video footage and CD sound at the service of all-round musicianship. Ears, eyes, hands, feet and brain are all engaged. The hottest players of the past and the coolest players of the present offer their example for the who-knows-what players of the future. Courtney Pine gracefully leads older teenagers to advanced work by living composers.

Rewind (4Learning) starts with a performance, and then works back to the original ideas and processes of redrafting, before assembling the piece again. We see the sampling and mixing that goes to create a dance hit as well as Django Bates making a big band score. "I like to be surprised even though I wrote it" he says. That's what we see and hear, as young players become co-creators through improvisations. In another discourse, the Medici Quartet and Wajahat Kahn blend two different languages, addressing the problems of notating non-western scales in a musical encounter between sarod and violin.

A millennium of Western European musical achievement is ably set out for 14 to 19-year-olds in Big Bangs (4Learning), presented by Howard Goodall. We cover the centuries between medieval monks and contemporary computers as we learn how simple patterns of dots and lines have preserved what would otherwise be ephemeral puffs of air. We see how opera, far from being restricted to the precious and the privileged, has played a role in politics and revolution. Goodall's informed enthusiasm makes relatively abstruse topics such as the invention of equal temperament or the technology of the piano into an occasion for excitement.

Even adults can learn from Zoe (4Learning), a 90-minute opera on contemporary issues written in an eclectic accessible idiom. Recognisable school scenes (with a trendy media teacher) switch to clubs, prison and science labs, with a heady atmosphere of sex and stalking. As well as an orchestra, there are guitar, keyboards, drums and techno-beat drum machines. In places, the score is reminiscent of film noir, with rich chromatic harmonies and colours. As with all C4 programmes, the website has excellent teachers' notes.

And the parade goes on. Wynton Marsalis and David Copperfield will be joining in soon, and so will thousands of young people who will get their first inspiration from a song heard while dancing on the classroom carpet or from a piano riff learned during a TV broadcast one wet Thursday morning. While the BBC and Channel 4 continue to provide such riches, we can echo Caliban's pleasure in living on an island "full of noises,Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not".

A new schools radio website will be available this autumn.www.bbc.co.uklearning All BBC school radio programmes are now broadcast on Radio 4 on the digital frequency and no longer obtainable from analogue radio. www.bbc.co.ukdigitalradio Channel 4www.channel4.comlearning

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today