Magic at your fingertips

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Fire pupils' imagination and music moves beyond theory, says Hannah Conway

Many primary teachers find music a difficult subject to approach, forgetting their own natural ability to respond to music through movement, listening and singing. Yet music lessons do not have to be theoretical or technical to be successful - quite the reverse. Music exists in the bones as much as in the head and being musical is more important than knowing a lot about it.

Pupils' imaginations are fired when music is given a context. Creativity flourishes when teachers value their pupils' responses to music, accept their spontaneous musical gestures and develop their musical ideas.

As an animateur for the London Symphony Orchestra's Discovery Programme I bring pupils, teachers and professional musicians together, and try to make this way of thinking a vivid reality.

At a school that I visited recently 200 five to seven-year-olds sat entranced by a string quintet from the LSO performing a movement from Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite. They could not explain the technical details or analyse the musical notation but they had no difficulty in understanding the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive, because they had been told the story to give it a context.

They listened intently to the grief of hundreds of people from the town of Hamelin as they witness the Pied Piper lead their children away into the mountain. They heard the crying of the families who have lost their sons and daughters. There was no need to explain Warlock's music. When asked about the musical performance, one pupil said: "I feel empty in my tummy."

It is impossible to teach such depth of response. We can only offer pupils the maic of sound and a familiar scenario and then wait for the music to touch them. When music is given contexts that speak of human hopes and fears, then imagination and creativity come to the fore. For our young audience, the LSO string quintet performs the pizzicato second movement from Britten's Simple Symphony. The pitter-pattering sounds represent the feet of three elves who sneak in to help the shoemaker and his wife. Each time the music is repeated in the story, the pupils eagerly respond. "No! Not with the bow. The elves are stamping. They must tiptoe. Use your fingers on the strings," a six-year-old directs the violinist. The pupils composed tiptoeing music in a previous class. They know how it must sound.

Musical instruments wield a special power. Young pupils often gasp in astonishment at the sight of a double bass, before shrinking back from its sounds. The moving parts of trombones tend to incite hilarity, and clarinets bring on an awe-inspired hush.

Instruments have characteristic shapes, special smells, and unique sounds that can be coaxed from them as they are passed around the class. Teachers are often surprised at how attentive pupils can be, how carefully they listen, how much they come to respect the instruments, and care for the sounds they make. Through partnerships with professional orchestras and arts organisations, teachers can become more skilful in supporting their pupils and may also become more musical themselves.

Hannah Conway is the Edward Heath assistant animateur for the LSO, and organises school projects.John Finney, lecturer in music education at Homerton College, Cambridge, assisted with the article.LSO education, tel: 020 7588 1116. Web:

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