New words, old tunes

13th November 1998 at 00:00
THREE RAPPING RATS. By Kaye Umansky. A amp; C Black Pounds 8.99

MICHAEL FINNIGIN, TAP YOUR CHINIGIN. By Sue Nicholls. A amp; C Black Pounds 7.99

Like so many of the best ideas, it's impressively simple: take a story and turn it into a song. Then transform it into a piece of music.

Kaye Umansky's Three Singing Pigs, which does this with nursery tales, is deservedly popular in infant classes. Now she turns her attention to a range of stories for older children, the examples ranging from Aesop to Anansi, from Grimm to Kipling.

Two essential devices appear with all 11 stories. Innovative words are written to familiar tunes. Teachers won't need to play the melodies themselves - they are so well-known. Then aspects of the stories are developed, to explore the elements of musical language.

These activities have been devised by the highly respected team of Kate Buchanan and Stephen Chadwick. For each story they provide a short unprepared piece of work (to fit into the dwindling gaps between prescribed tests and prescribed hours) and a lengthier practical investigation involving improvisation, organisation and shared performance.

They are splendidly varied. The photocopiable scores and clear instructions will satisfy both nervous teachers who haven't done this before and experienced practitioners who will be inspired to develop their own. Children can devise rallentandos for the Sleeping Beauty's castle, with separate themes for soldiers and clocks, and Messaien-like repeating bird-patterns. They can follow a spiral score with simple modulations imitating the spinning wheel in Rumpelstiltskin; and then play the transformation of gold into straw with overlapping motifs, arranged rather like the links in Lutoslawski's Chain pieces.

Dynamics and controlled crescendos mimic the fable of The Sun and the Wind; call and response ideas map melodically the wintry contours of the land of Imir the Frost Giant. Children get the chance to be not just musically inventive, but also subtle narratologists, competent decoders of syntax, assured handlers of phonemic repetition. Music supports literacy in dynamic and resourceful ways.

Michael Finnigin develops the idea of the much-loved "Bobby Shaftoe Clap Your Hands". These are again new words written to old songs, each illustrating one of the elements of musical language. Children (aged about six or seven) are also invited to use voices and instruments in a kaleidoscopic variety of enjoyable and enlightening ways. Turning the "Drunken Sailor" into a complex web of layered vocal timbres or discovering how "When the Saints" incorporates a mixture of long and short notes in its melodic structure are some of the many refreshing activities on offer. Read, sing, play and enjoy.

Tom Deveson is music advisory teacher for the London Borough of Southwark

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