Nigel Williamson reports on a Children's Music Workshop event in Leicestershire that taps into primary children's imaginations with prolific results
Writing songs is easy, according to composer Howard Moody. "You take the words, add rhythm and pitch and you've got everything you need," he's telling two dozen primary teachers at a training session in Coalville, Leicestershire.
They look sceptical. But they hadn't been present earlier in the day, when we witnessed Year 4 of nearby Woodstone Community Primary School write five songs in a two-hour session, under the guidance of Howard Moody and animateurs Sian Davies and James Redwood.
"In opposite world, everything is mad, she's a boy and he's a girl, bad is good in this crazy world, play is work and work is play," went one of their original, rapidly-produced compositions.
Another was a slapstick Country-tinged number about a potbellied pig in a blue-spotted dress and wearing red lipstick. They had been given the theme of "transformation" and interpreted it liberally.
In the next session, the animateurs and the 30 children are joined by a group of professional musicians led by Howard Moody on electric keyboard, supported by Jack Ross on electric guitar and Nicholas Kok on piano. As the children start singing, the trio pick up and embellish the melody. The young composers cannot hide their astonishment at hearing their own music played back to them. "I have written a song before with my friends," Dominic James, aged eight, says with studied nonchalance, "but hearing proper musicians play what we've written is brilliant." Fay Martin, also eight, claims no such prior experience. "Writing a song is hard work. But they make it seem easy," she enthuses.
The theme of "transformation" has been chosen to reflect dramatic changes in the local landscape over the past 10 years, brought about by the creation of the National Forest, a reclamation scheme spanning 200 square miles of Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire, where there were once grim collieries and rusting industrial valleys. "We used the forest as a symbol to unlock their imagination," says Howard Moody.
After they have run through the earlier songs, Year 4 are asked to write a new one about the trees and leaves chattering to each other. "I want you to have a really good think and tell me what the trees in the forest are gossiping about," James Redwood says.
Working in groups of four or five, they contribute two or three lines each to the song and the two animateurs assist them in assembling the disparate parts into a coherent whole. Each line is chanted until, from the rhythm of the words, a melody emerges. The tunes are based on a simple pentatonic scale in which any order of the five notes has a natural beauty.
But the imagination all comes from the children. "I spy with my glowing yellow eyes ghost hunters frozen with fear," the newly-composed forest lyric begins. A suitably spooky-sounding tune is fashioned from the five notes and accompanied by a series of tree-like dance moves brimming with invention and energy.
The workshop is part of a two-year programme conducted by the Children's Music Workshop in conjunction with the National Forest Company, which will culminate with a performance involving up to 300 pupils in the summer term of 2005. Funded by grants from the Foundation for Sports and the Arts as well as the Garfield Weston Foundation and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, pupils at 30 local schools are working on the project, which, through music and dance, seeks to link the area's industrial and mining past with the present and relates to key stages 1 and 2.
"We don't use blackboards, just the children's imaginations and fantastic memories," says director Jane Pountney, who founded Children's Music Workshop with Ann Blaber in 1989 as an independent charity to create high-quality programmes bringing together professional musicians and primary children. Sir Simon Rattle is the CMW's patron and other programmes in operation include a collaboration between nine primary schools in Sussex and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and a long-term programme in East London.
"It's a democratic right that children should be able to choose music and the arts," Jane Pountney says. "Most of the schools we work in have very limited facilities or don't have specialist music teachers. We feel we're fulfilling a desperate need."
Gwen Tyler, a teacher at Woodstone, agrees: "I take them for one music lesson a week. But it's nothing like this intensive block of time with real experts."
Back at the training session, Howard Moody and his team are putting a new group of teachers through exactly the same songwriting exercise as at Woodstone Community Primary. "You take the tune from the contours of the words," he explains. The system is based on a simple but brilliantly effective technique and they pick it up quickly. Although, it has to be said, not quite as quickly as Year 4 had done earlier.
Children's Music Workshop produces resource notes for teachers. Further information from 34 Osnaburgh Street, London NW1 3ND
www.childrensmusicworkshop.orgThe National Forest Company: www.nationalforest.org