In a previous incarnation I was a decent musician; it was the guitar that led me into Spanish, and I have always liked to sing. But until recently I had never seen myself as a conductor or composer.
Then I discovered the MFL orchestra. All language teachers know how rhythm helps learning, and often what attracts us to the subject is the sound of the language (hence those debates about which is the most intrinsically musical). Spanish is right up there in terms of say-and-singability and students tend to initiate the chanting of banal rhyming words: una silla amarilla, dos ojos rojos, toma la goma (a yellow chair, two red eyes, take the rubber). It's a short step to clapping and dancing.
But it was only when Year 4 students began learning about the orquesta loca (extracted from the Versos de Agua anthology) that my ears were opened to the full potential. Orquesta Loca is a nonsense poem, full of recognisable instrument names coupled with crazy invented verbs; percussion is built in and so too is freedom from inhibition.
Soon we were improvising wildly on la que ea orquestea - ea ea ea, orquestea orquesta. So carried away were we that some students found it difficult to stop. Solution? Don't stop them. Get some oboes oboeing on the other side of the room, first staccato and perfectly in time - O B O E A O B O E A - then legato, with a swelling crescendo and diminuendo (get those vowel sounds right, children). Use sibilants to soften with the whispering echo of a snare drum: de mis suenos, de mis suenos ... It's not that different from the ornate repetition of words and syllables so beloved of Handel and Mozart.
With some creative adaptation, the same approach can surely be applied to any text. Identify the assonance and establish your rhythm section. Distribute the narrative thread among your soloists, voices projecting over the top in the style of operatic recitative. It's the opposite of rap (so much in vogue but all about the words) and more akin to the haka. It's the closest you can get in modern languages to the tribal, team-building exercises that are routine on the sports field.
A fair amount of chaos ensues but it's such liberating, expressive, empowering chaos. Perhaps the communication isn't that functional, which serves to remind us that language is not reducible to information - it is also a formal game, almost instrumental, a kind of music. And the process provides a comprehensive workout for the tongue and vocal chords, exploring new sounds and a new intonation. No matter the words, the children feel good, confident. No more halting uncertainty or anxiety about meaning, just a big, fat wall of Hispanic sound.
We invited the parents in to listen. I was tempted to charge them for the privilege. Next step? Year 4 busking on the streets? A generation of beatboxers in the making?
Dr Heather Martin is head of MFL and curriculum coordinator at St Faith's Independent Prep School in Cambridge.
Find out about Classical Spectacular, TES partner Royal Albert Hall's show for schools, and download a teachers' pack.
Explore orchestral instruments with a song, The Orchestra Family, and activities shared by DonnaJMinto.