Pick and mix for success

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Choose instruments - and books and software - with care and pupils can make lyrical sound, says Tom Deveson.

Experienced music co-ordinators in primary schools can be recognised by their preoccupied look. Running through their heads is a symphonic torrent of questions: "If I've got pound;400 to spend, and the new xylophone costs pound;410, should I get kazoos instead?" "What is that thing on the upstairs instrument trolley with the obscene metal bits?" New music co-ordinators need to be reassured. The essential thing to remember is: discover what you've already got, then decide what you need, then find out how much money you can spend, and only then start to worry.

With singing restored to a central place in the national curriculum, you will want some songbooks. These should include some rounds (a marvellous and enjoyable way to understand musical ideas from the inside), as well as representative songs from a range of musical cultures. Faber Music and Aamp;C Black, among others, produce fine collections. Most come with a CD or cassette, so even if "Mrs Grisewood" who used to play the piano, has now departed, your children won't be bereft.

Look for titles that include ideas for pupils to make up accompaniments or develop the songs in appropriate ways. And choose a repertoire that includes seriousness and even sadness as well as up-beat vivacity - children are entitled to feel and express emotional complexity.

You will also probably want books with ideas for teaching. Inviting as the new QCA schemes of work may be, they still don't provide round-the-clock assistance for those lacking specialised knowledge or confidence.

Again, there is a wealth of material from the major publishers. You will have to decide whether colleagues want a hefty six- or seven-volume set of exhaustive directives, one for each year group, with every classroom minute accounted for, every "appraising" question already asked and answered, and every illustrative musical extract pre-recorded and put snugly and accessibly into place on a CD; or whether they want more of a broad outline, with something improvisatory left to individual teachers' temperaments and tastes.

Both approaches work well, even within the same schoo. The first option tends to cost a lot more, but might be considered a long-term investment.

However, make sure the scheme you choose includes a variety of contemporary music. It's a living art, not a museum.

That applies equally to the choice of instruments. It may seem obvious: get things with which children can play good music. Unfortunately, the more they cost the better they will sound. (There are exceptions: a pair of claves, sawn from the legs of our younger daughter's outgrown high chair, has produced lovely chiming wooden resonances for a dozen years).

Nothing substitutes for a visit to a supplier, so that you can try things out with hands and ears.

Tuned percussion is essential, with a range of xylophones, glockenspiels, metallophones and chime bars. The bass instruments are costly, but sound wonderful. However, too much metal at a time makes the classroom ring like a blacksmith's forge, so assemble as wide a range of other sound-makers as you can afford.

The timbre of one wood block or drum or cymbal is different from another we wouldn't expect children to paint with one blue, one red or one yellow.

A digital age offers an abundance of new-millennial sounds. You may not yet feel confident about bringing music software into class, but your children will be increasingly familiar with it as the applications become more enticing and the prices drop. There is a lot of gee-whiz dross in the marketplace, but there is also much that is truly educational. That is, it uses digital means to complement and enhance children's acoustic experience. It may link a keyboard through MIDI to produce a vast and varied bank of high quality timbres, or represent sounds in other modes - mobile or graphic - that enable children to reflect on and adjust their music-making in concrete ways.

A programmable keyboard is also a fine adjunct to learning. You can use it to pre-record a piece then alter speeds, to get tremendous use and satisfaction from its ingenious flexibility: all without the need to be competent beyond about Grade Three piano.

And even when singing and playing aren't possible, the computer can help keep music alive inside the mind's silence.

Stand PV107

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