Just pick up the patterns

25th February 2000 at 00:00
If you think 'I'm not musical' and worry about teaching the subject, don't, says Gerald Haigh. A little confidence will take you a long way

Primary teachers worry too much about their ability to teach music. The key is to start with the fundamental sounds and rhythms that are within reach, and organise them into patterns.

* Be assured that you already know more about music than the experts say you do. Can you do the steering-wheel bongos to your car radio? Can you sing a tune well enough for it to be recognisable? Can you, on hearing a piece of music, put into one of a dozen or so categories - folk song, boy band, dance, latino, classical, jazz, opera? Are you not already some kind of expert?

* Have confidence, then, and try this. Clap a short rhythm to the class - perhaps the pattern of the opening part of the Match of the Day theme. Then get them to clap it back to you. Try another pattern, and another. You are now a music teacher. To do the task you have set, the children have to listen to the pattern, recall it and prove their level of recall by performing it back. This kind of ear training is central to all musical education, and is in the national curriculum: "to listen with attention to detail and to internalise and recall sounds with increasing aural memory."

* Build up your scheme from that point. Make your patterns more elaborate. Go round the class getting each child to clap a considered response rather than a straight copy.

* Then move on to untuned and tuned percussion instruments. Help children to listen to the textures of the instruments, and choose the rhythms and sounds they need. Let them put together compositions in groups, illustrating ideas (fear, calmness, humour) or natural events (wind, storm, sunshine). Find stories that the children like, and get them to illustrate them with percussive sounds made with their bodies and their instruments.

* Simplify the use of tuned percussion like this take off all the sound bars but the notes C, D, F, G, A. What you now have is a pentatonic - five note - scale on which children can easily create simple tunes. They will find, too, that any pentatonic tune fits well with any other pentatonic tune.

* Pay attention to pitch (high or low notes), duration (long or short notes), tempo (quick and slow) and dynamics (loud and soft). Suggest trying to bind a piece together with a continuous repeating pattern on one or two instruments (ostinato).

Do all this - in music lessons or together with writing, art or drama - and you will be fulfilling very big chunks of the national curriculum music requirements.

A few more ingredients:

* You must do some singing - every day if possible. The key here is not so much adequacy of voice as confidence. Pick a song with a modest range and a simple tune and practise it the night before. Next day take a deep breath and just sing it to them. Be bold - the first time is the hardest.

* Now break the song down line by line - sing a line, get them to sing it back. Point out errors, then repeat. Do not worry, incidentally, if you cannot play the piano. It is not a good model for children learning to sing - it is percussive, when what you want are sustained vocal sounds.

* Next, think about notation. As an alternative to conventional notation, work on ways of using invented symbols to record the music that children have composed. Done well, this "graphic notation" looks beautiful and makes a link to art.

* Play lots of music to the children. Talk about it and help them to recognise styles and genres. Get live musicians in whenever you can.

* Organise your work into a scheme which is balanced and progressive through the year and through the key stage. You need help with this, and it is time to get the adviser in. They will be astonished at what you have already achieved.

Gerald Haigh is a former primary headteacher

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